Many men struggle to talk about their mental health challenges, and that’s especially true in the workplace. To mark Men’s Mental Health Week, here are some ways to prioritise their wellbeing, as well as that of your entire team.
This article mentions mental health issues and suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate support, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467, or visit MensLine Australia.
Although mental health problems can affect anyone, males are particularly at risk, with five men taking their lives each day in Australia.
Data shows that 94 per cent of all workplace fatalities are men, despite making up just 56 per cent of the workforce.
Although these work-related fatalities are not exclusively caused by mental health problems, suicide was one of the top three causes of general fatalities for men, as well as cardiovascular issues and road accidents, so it’s certainly an important area for employers to focus on. With reduced productivity and absences caused by mental health-related issues costing the Australian economy $12 billion each year, there are only positive impacts to arise from doing so.
To mark International Men’s Health Week, HRM spoke with two academics about some ways employers can better facilitate support for stronger wellbeing at work, and especially for men.
Raising awareness of men’s mental health
To contextualise why men’s mental health in particular is such a priority, Associate Professor Emma George, Director of the Centre for Men’s Health at Western Sydney University (WSU), outlines the sobering facts around men’s mental and physical wellbeing.
“Australian men have a lower life expectancy than women, rates of chronic disease are quite high, and physical activity and dietary habits are suboptimal,” she says. “Suicide is the leading cause of death for young men aged 18 to 45.
“Despite high rates of poor mental health, men are less likely than women to engage with mental health support services and with traditional health services in general. And when they do engage, we find that consultations are generally shorter in nature.”
Read HRM’s article on a new suicide prevention framework that could help employers.
International Men’s Health Week, which runs annually from 13 to 19 June and is coordinated in Australia by WSU, aims to highlight this reality and promote strategies for positive physical and mental health for men.
“People spend so much time – around a third of their lives – at work, so the workplace provides an optimal setting to promote health and wellbeing,” says George.
There’s nothing about strategies for improving men’s health outcomes that can’t also be applied to the workforce at large.
“If we create positive and healthy environments where people feel supported and their health and wellbeing are made a priority, that has a positive impact on their relationships and lifestyle behaviours,” she says. “For example, if you’re not feeling burnt out from work, you’ll go home with more energy to engage in physical activity or cook a healthy meal for dinner.”
Strategies to tackle the problem of mental health in the workplace may vary – but the employee’s perspective is key regardless of the approach, says George.
“There’s great potential for bottom-up approaches where programs are co-designed with the workforce,” she says. “Having people who champion mental health and wellbeing within an organisation is a powerful way to build culture and to continue the conversation beyond formal structures. A multi-levelled approach is what’s required.”
When asked about who is best placed within an organisation to foster these conversations, George mentions that it’s not only senior leaders who can provide mental health leadership.
“We often think of leaders as the people right at the top, but we know there are leaders on the ground everyday, building morale within teams,” she says.
“We need to get better at recognising people who have leadership capabilities, who aren’t necessarily in leadership or management roles. They’re just as important in normalising conversations about mental health and wellbeing as traditional leaders.”
“Despite high rates of poor mental health, men are less likely than women to engage with mental health support services… And when they do engage, we find that consultations are generally shorter in nature.” – Associate Professor Emma George, Men’s Health Information and Resource Centre
Paying attention to your people is vital, says George, including when responding to or aiming to prevent an emergency.
“If you start to notice change in someone – being withdrawn or not acting like themselves – start a conversation. Let them know you’ve noticed a change and that you’re worried about them – but without pressing them to talk to you straight away.”
If someone is in immediate danger, George advises to contact emergency services straight away. Generally, though, it’s a matter of improving communication around the referral and emergency support pathways that are available.
“If somebody needs support, there shouldn’t be any barriers for them to access that. Make sure employees are aware of emergency support and employee assistance programs,” she says.
Part of the challenge of discussing mental health with men is that they can be hesitant or embarrassed to open up about their struggles. Research suggests that many men wouldn’t tell anyone about their struggles due to a negative stigma, or would only open up when things became dire.
How can HR help to normalise asking for help among male employees?
Dr Ruchi Sinha, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at UniSA Business School, offers some practical ways to start more meaningful conversations with a male employee or colleague you’re concerned about.
- Consider using different language
According to Sinha, changing the messaging is the first step for employers to innovate their approach to male employees facing mental health challenges.
“Stereotype-based ideals and related fears can be triggered by words such as ‘depression’ and ‘mental distress.’
“Managers can be socially intelligent by adapting their language to use less threatening terms, such as ‘recovering from burnout’ or ‘developing mental fitness and strength’,” she suggests.
- Get them outside
One-on-one conversations with a manager to talk about feelings could also be intimidating for some men. The concept of a walk and talk gets around this by providing a more relaxed, non-threatening environment to discuss sensitive matters.
“Work-related one-on-ones can be done in more formal office spaces, but follow it up with a walk to the coffee shop where managers can discuss the challenges and other stressors facing men at work,” suggests Sinha.
“Some men can also be reluctant to seek out employee assistance programs where they have to sit face-to-face in front of a counsellor. To encourage a slow transition into being comfortable, managers could provide non-traditional and innovative resources, such as phone or online counselling services.”
- Ask twice
Even if you switch up your language and do so in a non-threatening environment, not every man, or indeed every person, will respond with enthusiasm straight away. Sometimes you need to give people a little more time to warm up to the conversation – especially when it requires them to be vulnerable.
The act of asking twice – “Are you sure you’re okay? Can I help?” – helps to prevent the conversation from moving away from the topic at hand by exemplifying your concern, and actively inviting the respondee to open up.
“Managers require the skill to build trust,” says Sinha. “Show empathy and vulnerability to create a safe place for male employees.”
Learn how to develop a practical, evidence-based action plan to address mental health challenges in the workplace by booking your place at AHRI’s mental health first aid course.