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Silent suffering: the case for better supporting men in the workplace

Keep an eye on the men in your life: they could be suffering more than you know.

Men’s health is still taboo. While many men enjoy the benefits of modern Western society, with regards to both physical and mental health, men are far less likely to seek help regarding their mental and physical health than women.

A survey commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation found that just under a third of men have never sought support for a mental health issue they faced. According to Lifeline, the rate of male suicide is 3 times higher in men than in women.

And in a study conducted as part of the MENtion It campaign, 65% of men said they avoid going to the doctor for as long as possible, with 37% withholding information even when they do. This results in men being far more likely to die from preventable and treatable issues than women, dying on average 4 to 5 years earlier.

We all know that with regards to most issues, both physical and mental, early intervention is key in creating a long-term positive outcome. So why are the men in our lives so reluctant to admit that they need help?

The stigma of admitting you need help

Many men think they can handle it all themselves. Society’s view of men is that they are expected to be able to handle everything – phrases like “boys don’t cry” and “man up” are associated with pulling yourselves out of problems, and that admitting or asking for help is, somehow, not becoming of a man. So when we experience issues, there is stigma around asking for help when we’re overwhelmed, bullied, or just simply going through a tough time.

And this is widespread. In the same Mental Health Foundation survey, only a quarter of men who experienced mental health problems said they’d admitted it to anyone. That’s a simply staggering number of men suffering through issues they could seek help with.

In many societies, the “breadwinner” stereotype of men being unthinking, unfeeling machines who provide for their families and don’t need anything themselves is everywhere. The idea of admitting that you’re struggling with this, with providing for yourself or for your loved ones physically, financially, emotionally or mentally, can be terrifying for many men who have been taught that they should never ask for assistance.

The fear of vulnerability

Vulnerability is also a concept that many men are taught to avoid. This ties in to both the mental and physical aspects of health – men struggling being seen as mentally weak, but also that their body is having an issue that might need attention, and that that might take away their agency or ability to provide.

It’s interesting because these fears come from a place of care – the desire to provide unabashed and uninterrupted support for their family, friends and colleagues is to put oneself in a position of vulnerability inherently, to have others rely on you. However in neglecting ourselves, we risk losing the ability to do that entirely as we get overwhelmed and exhausted.

Many men also isolate themselves in attempts to disguise their problem from others, and continue to be supposedly self-sufficient. In doing so, many of us hide symptoms physically and mentally. This can resort to the use of alcohol or other substances in a bid to hide our mental health problems, or to provide a socially acceptable outlet within which to discuss our feelings and fear.

If we can only engage emotionally when we’re under the influence, we’re not meaningfully engaging or dealing with our issues at all, and the risk of the scenario of alcoholism or addiction can rear, complicating matters even further.

What can you do?

For many men, because there is so little discussion around the subject, we may not even recognise what’s going on as a period of bad mental health until it’s too late. Knowledge is power, and when you understand what’s happening you can tackle it. This is also true of physical health – you need to know the cause before you can tackle it, and reframing the narrative from physical ailments making you weak, to understanding your body is what makes you more powerful is key to this piece.

So the best way to tackle these things is to talk about it, to ask about it, to educate, inform and leave space for men who might want to come forward, but are struggling to do so. If we have spaces and sessions where we discuss openly our problems, it becomes a lot less scary to do so because we are no longer facing them alone: we have other men, colleagues, female allies and our wider families around us to show support, no matter what the issue might be.

For businesses, providing space for these conversations is vital. Including men in discussions of mental health, specifically discussing and making public the facts around male mental health, encouraging managers to regularly check in holistically with the men on their teams, and being understanding and allowing for men to seek support through internal EAPs, external sources and allowing for time to get physical check-ups: these are all quick and easy wins for making our workplaces more nurturing and accepting environments for men.