Mental wellbeing and work: is it working well enough for men?
15 June 2020
With organisations now embracing the fact that employee wellbeing comes under their Duty of Care remit, mindfulness programmes and meditation sessions in the workplace are being adopted more, and often to a very positive effect on employees. However, are we sure these are benefitting all employees equally?
Psychological gender differences
Research suggests that male and female psychology starts to diverge in early adolescence. Different coping strategies for dealing with stress emerge, with women tending to prefer to talk things through and men tending to use some form of distraction. These differences are due to the different levels of the hormone oxytocin produced to counter the stress hormone cortisol. Unchecked, chronic stress can lead to serious health conditions and a less-effective immune system.
In adolescence, the incidence of psychological disorders increase for both groups as well. According to the Men’s Health Forum, it would appear that women are more likely to suffer common mental disorders (CMDs) i.e. 1 in 5, compared with 1 in 8 men. With depression, the gap is greater, with 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men receiving treatment.
How women and men express our stress and difficulties?
However, these statistics only account for those people who have been able to accurately describe their difficulties and have sought professional help. There is a suggestion that men are less likely to recognise emotional and psychological stress in themselves and are also less likely to seek treatment. In addition, the way that depression manifests may differ, with women ‘internalising’ and showing symptoms perceived as being typically ‘female’, such as tearfulness, withdrawal, lack of motivation and energy. They may direct action inward, by analysing or writing about a negative event.
In contrast, men may ‘externalise’, with action tending to be directed outward e.g. playing sports or video games, watching TV. Behaviours that appear to be ‘acting out’ may be exhibited, e.g. physical aggression, heavy drinking and extreme anger. These externalised behaviours can commonly be overlooked as signs of depression, and can indeed illicit unsympathetic responses in those around them, or from those they might have sought help from.
How can mental wellbeing services be more attractive to men?
The Men’s Health Forum have produced an excellent guide to men’s mental health, based on evidenced research and expert opinion. Some of the advice which can be used by workplace schemes to make services more appealing to men includes:
Using the right, male-friendly language - Communication is key, and when promoting services, organisations should think about whether their message respects the differences in the way that the genders approach mental health and wellbeing, and therefore appeals equally. Most workplaces have designated First-Aiders, and some are introducing Mental Health First Aiders as well. Offering such courses in the workplace not only equips employees with the skills to recognise potential symptoms in a colleague (and themselves) and signpost accordingly, but also helps to normalise conversations about mental health and wellbeing, which some men might otherwise struggle with.
Positive stories from male role-models - Access to helplines tends to increase for 3 weeks after a well-known person has divulged information about their mental health. Male celebrities or peers talking about their own struggles help to ‘normalise’ the conversation and remove the stigma. Peer support has been shown to be very effective, and it is therefore worth considering holding male-only sessions that enable men to feel less pressure to be ‘strong’, and evaluating whether this improves take-up of services.
Practical, activity-based programmes - Men tend to have a preference for a solution-focussed, direct goal, as opposed to a more generalised process, which does not seem to be off-putting to women. ‘Natural World’ (getting outside in nature), exercise and sport-based activities allow men to participate in a way that takes this preference into account in a practical way.
Access to ‘arms-length’ services – These are beneficial to all employees, but especially men, who may find face-to-face conversations more difficult. Where employees are working remotely or overseas, access to a GP service in their own language may indeed make a critical difference to their wellbeing.
Whatever approach organisations take, we need to ensure that all employees - regardless of gender - are comfortable talking about their mental wellbeing as well as their physical health.
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