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Men's health: cracking this tough challenge

Shocking statistics surround men's health and employers have an important role to play

Men are more likely than women to smoke, drink too much or take too little exercise. They're also prone to bottle up stress — all of which contributes to the fact that one in five men in the UK die before they're 65. So while Men’s Health Week (13-19 June) might sound like just another marketing wheeze, there’s a string of serious issues here related to gender clichés about how men should behave.

Workplaces are central to the male sense of identity. Men are twice as likely to be in full-time work — and employment plays a huge part in both their daily routines and their sense of who they are.

This year’s focus for Men’s Health Week is the impact of stress on wellbeing and getting men to think about how they’re feeling. It's time to challenge the male stereotype of being the hardworking, uncomplaining rock. The shocking facts are that suicide continues to be the leading cause of death for men under 35 and that 76% of people who take their own lives in the UK are male.

The NHS has struggled with the issue for many years. Women aged 20-40 visit their GP twice as often, and are also twice as ‘literate’ about health issues. Men are much less likely to ask for professional help when it comes to psychological problems (only 36% of those who received therapy in 2015 were men).

Given the high priority that men tend to give to work, HR departments have the chance to help break down barriers and engage men in thinking and talking about their health. First of all, organisations have a responsibility to get beyond one-size-fits-all health and wellbeing initiatives. It’s too easy to introduce schemes that everyone agrees are a ‘good thing,’ without ever touching on the health issues actually being faced by individuals. Are more salads and fruit in staff canteens, jogging groups and yoga ever going to do the trick?

A male-friendly health improvement service starts with evidence-based and relevant information. Abstract language around feeling good and being healthier looks good, but men want real facts and practical advice, e.g. how do you know if you have a drink problem? How much exercise is enough? How can you manage anger and beat stress?

Information on the main health issues faced by men needs to be pushed out; male employees should not have to look for it themselves. Effective methods might include rolling screensaver info on desktops, and poster campaigns with key data and support for the next steps to be taken on male cancers, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and mental health.

Employers need to make health support as accessible as possible. There are companies delivering tailored health screenings at low-cost within workplaces which don’t involve the fuss of appointments and taking time out. You can also look at ways of working with the NHS to deliver health checks in-house — helping to target hard-to-reach groups.

Women can feel more comfortable with women-only groups for some activities, and it’s the same for men. It’s worth running specific health Q&A sessions and campaigns for men to kickstart conversations, and thinking about how to use male role models from the organisation.

There’s also the issue of tone. Anything related to health and wellbeing can come across as po-faced, so comedy can be the way to crack through resistance to being part of any ’worthy’ corporate schemes. Some firms are starting to get comedians in to front men’s health workshops.

All the jokes about testicle checks will be worth it if HR can find better ways to overcome one of the biggest — and least discussed — barriers to getting the most from employee health and wellbeing investment.

Kirsten Samuel is managing director at Kamwell