They are our fathers, brothers, partners, mates and co-workers, and on 19 November the main men in our lives get a little TLC. The day marks International Men’s Day, with an emphasis on men’s health, improving gender relations and gender equality, and highlighting positive role models.
But showing support for men’s health and wellbeing goes farther than growing a bodacious moustache. Workplaces play a pivotal role in creating and supporting programs that help 54 per cent of the workforce stay healthy inside and out.
Although men are more likely than women to get regular exercise, chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke and depression are the top killers of Australian males and affect men at higher rates than women, according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Many of these issues are exacerbated by lifestyle factors that are unavoidable in some work environments; long periods of sitting, stress, unhealthy eating and smoking/drinking all contribute to increased risk for developing one – or more – of these.
Many studies have shown the link between male depression and increased risk of health disorders such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and men are twice as likely as women to respond to these negative feelings with harmful behaviours such as alcohol or drug abuse. According to the ABS, men also commit suicide at a rate three times higher than women, accounting for nearly 80 per cent of suicides in Australia.
Whereas women are likely to seek help for physical or mental health concerns, men tend to keep their heads and hands down until the situation is critical.
“Isolation is very specific to men,” says Hugh Martin, a psychotherapist, coach and founder of Man Enough, a men’s health and wellbeing organisation. “From a young age, we get this training to not complain, to suck it up, to ‘man up’, and this really enables that sense of isolation, or that a man can’t bring up an issue they’re having.”
It’s not just mental and physical factors that offices can help with, because work-life balance is an issue that affects men, too. In recent years, the model of the male breadwinner with a wife at home has given way to a more balanced workforce, with greater equality between the sexes in most industries. However, reality is still an unfriendly place for employees who seek greater equilibrium between life and work.
The pressure for men to plant themselves at their workplace persists, says Martin. The equation for perceived productivity remains equal parts presence and appearance. “Men will invariably invest more time at work than women do,” he says. “They tend to feel more isolated from home life, not as efficient at multitasking, and they invest long hours at work. It’s hard to sustain.”
Not surprisingly, men are less likely than women to request flexible work arrangements. One 2011 study from the University of South Australia found that men requested flexibility half as often as women, and that parenting made no difference to a man’s likelihood to request flexible arrangements – they just don’t bring it up.
As with most issues, an open and communicative workplace culture is essential to helping men seek help for any concern, from that tickle at the back of their throat, to stress from workloads or depression due to lack of balance between work and home life. Kritika Singh, a commercial account manager with SMG Health, thinks businesses can get the message across that staying healthy – in every way – is a top priority.
“Workplaces need to promote to men that there is nothing wrong with looking after yourself, that there is nothing wrong in admitting that something is wrong,” she says. “We’ve found that once senior management and leadership shows support, engagement with health initiatives and programs increases.”
Investment in employee health can’t be mere lip-service, though. While some businesses have funds to staff their offices with in-house GPs, physios, nutritionists or fitness centres, there are many free or nearly free programs that organisations can utilise. Singh works with Get Healthy at Work, which provides a variety of services to workplaces. Accredited health professionals can perform assessments of employee health during short consultations, provide workplaces with resources and reference networks, help managers set up health programs and even follow up with at-risk employees.
There are also examples of campaigns aimed at encouraging men to see work-life balance not as an indulgence, but as part of a well-rounded and happy life. Equilibrium Challenge, a series of short documentaries profiling five high-achieving men as they undertake flexible working, aims to show that wanting more balance shouldn’t be a career killer. The goal is to show that rather than choose one or the other, men can manage all of the interests and commitments they have by asking for the time to do so.
“It’s all about how the message is promoted to staff. It has to be clear and show why individuals should take care of themselves,” Singh says. “It can’t be done through just one avenue, like a poster on the wall. Understand your workforce and the culture, then tailor everything to what men in your office want and need.” She also recommends having a champion or volunteer – ideally someone not at a management level – within the office lead the charge, as does Martin.
From there, it’s not long before business can expect to see a real return from investment in health and wellbeing programs. Benefits include increased morale and productivity, and becoming an employer of choice, to name a few. Decreased sick leave, lower turnover and increased loyalty are other, less tangible, benefits.
“Men need networks at work to feel connected to what they are doing and those around them,” says Martin. “Create that network at the office, and once men are in the ring, they’re more prepared to talk about concerns.
Men want it all, too. Workplaces can help give it to them.