Men rarely open-up about mental health issues at work. Until recently, I could never imagine talking to a work colleague about mental health, since I feared being perceived as weak and lacking the strength to be a successful leader.
I have hinted at my own mental health struggles on LinkedIn. However, it was not until a recent visit from Mind, the UK-based mental health charity, and their men’s mental health session at IQ-EQ, that I realised that there was an evolving recognition in society about men’s mental health. It was finally getting the attention it deserves, and it was okay to be open about it.
The reluctance of men to open-up about their emotions is irrespective of age, nationality, ethnicity or racial background. Tragically, suicide is the biggest cause of death in men under the age of 50. Thanks to the endeavours of great charity organisations like Mind and high profile mental-health ambassadors such as Prince William, employers are waking up to the importance of mental wellbeing for their employees. The working environment can play a significant role in influencing a person’s mental state.
High work volumes and resource constraints can adversely impact mental health in all genders at work, however it’s unhealthy masculine ideals that are prevalent in the poor mental health of men. Culturally, the male stereotype has expectations of a man being a high earner, successful, strong, ambitious, independent and stoic. The toxicity comes when men play to these expectations and reduce their capacity to reflect and acknowledge their own sadness and stress. Lack of career and progression compared to friends is also a key predictor of poor mental health in men.
It is therefore no wonder, that with unconscious masculine ideals, men choose not to open-up about their mental health. Their suppressed emotional struggle can often play out at work, undetected with serious consequences.
Behaviours to look out for that may indicate mental distress
- Distraction – frequently working long hours, lack of concentration, missing deadlines, reduced work performance
- Escaping – unhealthy habits, like heavy drinking and binge eating
- Withdrawal – not participating in work-related social activities, lack of social contact with co-workers, high work absence rate
- Externalisation – fractious, irritable, frustration with colleagues, showing anger and anti-social behaviour
How to start the conversation
Not all men will be naturally able to identify and talk about their feelings and emotions. A Time to Change study in 2019 found that only 25% of men would open up to friends if they were struggling with their mental health. The study also found that they wouldn’t feel confident in identifying when a friend was trying to open up.
How do we create an open environment at work where men feel at ease to share their feelings?
- ‘Ask Twice’ – Time to Change advocates asking twice. Don’t accept the “I’m fine” initial response to the “how are you?” question. Ask again. Asking “how are you?” is such a social norm that it needs to be repeated to be more impactful, helping to create another opportunity for your colleague to share more, as well as reiterating that you care
- Create a safe space – One-to-one conversations need to take place in a comfortable setting. If you are trying to support someone to talk about their mental health, you could try inviting them for a walk or to do an activity. This can create a distraction and be a more relaxing environment for people to share their feelings. Share your own personal experiences to build a connection. Ensure that check-ins are taking place regularly for all team members so that they become habitual and natural
- Encourage work-life balance – Remind them of the importance to take a break, go outside and get some exercise, and encourage participation in informal team social gatherings
- Remind them of the wider mental health support available at work – At IQ-EQ in the UK, we have the Mind-trained “Mental Health First Aider” scheme providing a designated work colleague as an independent source of support. We also have the 24-hour Employee Assistance Line
- Reassure them that mental health support for men is available outside of work too – For example, Andy’s Man Club offers in-person peer-to-peer groups for men over 18 every Monday (except for Bank Holidays). The Men’s Sheds Association runs ‘sheds’ where men can pursue or take part in practical activities in social environments that foster camaraderie. The ManKind Project UK and Ireland provides safe, inclusive spaces both virtually and face-to-face
Undoubtedly, it may be more difficult for men to open-up at work. However, by understanding the signs of their mental health distress, engaging (asking twice!) and having a conversation, we can begin to better understand issues impacting mental health and what level of support is needed to ensure wellbeing.