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Mental health support for male employees

Men are often described as a ‘hard to help’ group in relation to engagement with health issues

They are less proactive with their health than women, they will see their GP less readily, they have less social support, and are less likely to use counselling or talking therapy services. Unfortunately they also have a greater risk of suicide than women – around 75% compared to 25%.

It is fair to say that there are individual differences not just between men and women but also within each gender and so stereotypes need to be treated with some caution. However, given that research has been carried out comparing men and women it is important to consider what may have added to these differences.

  • Life experiences. The experiences we have in our childhood, both positive and negative, have a profound effect on our character, personality and emotions as we grow up.
  • Social and cultural influences. Compared with women, men are more likely to eat an unhealthy diet, be overweight, drink excessively, misuse drugs and be involved in an accident. And where physical health is poor among men it can have a corresponding impact on their mental health.
  • The impact of the workplace. The majority of men continue to earn more than women and are more likely to occupy senior positions within an organisation. Men are also twice as likely as women to work full time and have a poor work/life balance. They are also more likely to have the role as the main ‘breadwinner’ within a household. Because it is so central to their life, where work is unsatisfying, disengaging or uncertain it can be a significant source of mental distress and also affect the mental health of those close to them.

So where boys may be encouraged to ‘man up’, act tough, stay in control and take what life throws at them, as well as being discouraged from showing their softer side, there is a chance that as adults men may find it difficult to seek support when they are struggling with something, especially their mental health and wellbeing.

Men also tend to have a very different social circle to women; being more inclined to have fewer close relationships so if they are struggling with their mental health they have less people to rely on or to encourage them to get support.

This stigma around mental health creates a fear among employees, especially men, of being judged or discriminated against and discourages them from talking about their mental health and seeking support. As a result men who are experiencing mental health issues may feel unable to tell their line manager about this and, as a result, try to hide their problems.

Organisations that promote positive mental health and, in particular, educate men about mental health can help to breakdown and remove this stigma. In these organisations men will feel able to talk openly about their mental health concerns and the culture will ‘normalise’ that this is just part of life.

The vision of creating a positive workplace culture is one where men feel empowered to disclose existing mental health conditions, making it easier for them and those around them to identify signs of mental distress should they experience mental ill health again in the future.

When an employer commits to improving mental health at work and promoting positive mental health it has an opportunity to develop an action plan to change attitudes – and minimise associated mental health stigma – and create a mental health policy that sets out its values. It can also ensure that senior managers champion awareness of mental health and do their part in removing the stigma around mental health in the workplace.

It will take time to enact a positive change in your workplace culture so some patience is needed. But nothing will change unless something changes, so a great starting point is to plan how to promote mental health in the workplace and highlight the organisation’s commitment to supporting all groups – but in particular men – with their mental health.

An action plan to promote mental health might include:

  • An explanation of why the organisation is committed to promoting positive mental health and why men are a key group that needs special attention, such as to decrease suicide risks.
  • How a successful organisation is not just good news for stakeholders but actually keeping men in employment is a key objective, as research has found a link between unemployment and poor mental health.
  • Planning a range of activities and creating key messages that take into account the male audience. Case studies from all levels in the organisation can be especially effective here, particularly at senior levels as this can challenge preconceived ideas that those with such issues ‘can’t succeed’ or are 'weak’ in some way. A key message is that it is a strength to recognise you need further support.
  • Training managers in mental health and having named mental health champions in the workplace can also be helpful, although there should be strong links to sources of support such as employee assistance programmes and occupational health.
  • Asking providers of support to report on male take-up of services and examine the trend to see if there is an improved usage from marketing the services in a male-friendly way. Setting up a user group with men represented could also inform how services are perceived and look at supplementary ways of engaging men, such as more anonymously via digital channels.
  • A commitment to revisit the plan on a regular basis to assess its effect on male mental health and how the organisation is progressing against its objectives.

Shaun Davis is global director of safety, health, wellbeing and sustainability at Royal Mail. Andrew Kinder is a chartered counselling occupational psychologist and professional head of mental health services at Optima Health. They co-authored the book Positive Male Mind: Overcoming mental health problems