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Don’t tell us to “man-up”! How to lift workplace stigma around male mental health

Liz Walker, HR director at Unum UK, discusses how to implement corporate emotional wellbeing strategies which appeal to men and women equally.
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Many businesses have introduced wellbeing initiatives to provide ongoing health support to employees. However, it’s becoming clear many aren’t accounting for gender differences in the way men and women handle or disclose emotional issues.

In fact, new data from Unum UK Group Income Protection suggests young male workers are less likely to seek mental health support than women. Of total mental health claims, only 7% were made by men under 30, compared to 12% for women in the same age group. 

The disclosure gap doubles between age 30 and 40, with only 14% of mental health claims coming from men, compared with 30% from women. 

Improve signposts

According to Westfield Health, almost a third of employees are unsure of who to turn to for mental health concerns, so any methods that increase awareness on the ground would be beneficial.

Line managers are well placed to spot employee difficulties, as they work closely with their teams. Because of this, they can more easily engage in conversations around mental health, so they need to be confident in discussing issues, recognise their own limits in providing support and be able to refer on to specialist help if required.

Unum research shows though that only 10% of line managers feel they have received sufficient levels of mental health training. To address this, perhaps start by organising awareness sessions for all employees. Part of this training needs to focus on how men and women sometimes signpost stress differently.

For example the Counselling Directory says depression is often more difficult to diagnose in men because they don’t complain about typical symptoms. More often than not, it’s the physical symptoms of depression, like backache or constant headaches, that lead them to visit doctors.

The next step is to advance management’s knowledge further through Mental Health First Aid training. While understanding mental health issues is important, make sure training provided includes skill acquisitions too. 

Promote self-care 

In a busy working world, it’s easy for employees to slip into bad habits such as checking emails late at night or working over the weekend. Employees may also even partake in other, more harmful lifestyle activities, which can exacerbate stress and poor health further.

According to an NHS report, men are almost three times more likely than women to drink alcohol at a hazardous level, which could be used as a form of “self-medication” for emotional distress. The highest levels of alcohol reliance are found in 25-34-year-old men.

 It’s important to raise awareness about the way these choices impact a male employee’s physical and mental health and to signpost available support mechanisms for when they’re most needed.

Establishing Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) can be a useful addition to wellbeing initiatives. EAPs offer direct, confidential contact with experts who can help individuals with emotional distress, from family issues to work-related problems, addiction and mental illness. 

Young male employees need more encouragement to sign up for self-care benefits like these. Try targeting through multiple communication channels or hold all-male presentations discussing what’s available to enhance individual emotional resilience. 

Track trends

Despite 67% of organisations offering an EAP as part of health and wellbeing programmes, only a small number (9%) of HR managers make an evaluation of EAP outcomes.

It’s important to use available data on EAP usage, absences and staff turnover. This ensures you have a clearer picture of the complexity of mental and physical health issues in your workforce, which employees are most at risk and what is required to support them.

As referenced earlier, by reviewing annual claims for Unum UK’s Group Income Protection Insurance, we were able to recognise men under 40 were making fewer claims for their mental health than their female colleagues. This is clearly a disclosure issue which needs resolving.

Having access to such insights allows companies to put in place the right proactive and reactive tactics to enable employees to strengthen their emotional and financial resilience before issues start to escalate.

Why not make use of free tools such as Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index, which can help you benchmark your company against others and suggests quantifiable measures you can track (e.g. presenteeism and absenteeism) both at baseline and over time?

Champion culture change

Disclosure of a mental health problem is, for many people, considered as different from disclosure of other health concerns. This is especially true for young men who can feel pressure to conform to tough or macho stereotypes in competitive work environments. 

It’s important men are able to disclose how they’re feeling and for businesses to create environments free from toxic masculinity. This is described by Dr Katharine Jenkins, an expert on the politics of gender in a recent media interview as:“[…]expectations, stereotypes, and assumptions about how a man should be [which]are harmful, either to the person trying to live up to them or to others”.

This is where mental health champions play an important role, offering a touch-point on the ground. By appointing an even mix of both male and female champions – who are different ages and levels of seniority – all staff will feel more confident in disclosing problems.

Fostering an open and inclusive culture, underpinned by support systems like EAPs, access to counselling services and line manager training, can empower men to share mental health concerns, without fearing workplace stigma.

Making more options widely available, can also help employers take a more proactive stance toward mental health and encourage companies to apply more tailored approaches to wellbeing strategies for all genders.

 Liz Walker, HR Director, Unum UK

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