Traditional values around masculinity have led to a tendency for men to often ignore or not talk about issues or feelings they are experiencing. This relates to physical, emotional and mental health as men are told they need to be strong or don’t be vulnerable, don’t cry! The unfortunate consequence is difficulties going unspoken, eventually leading to more serious health and wellbeing implications.
Thankfully, in recent years the paradigm has begun to shift. Since 2003, the Movember movement has encouraged men to grow and celebrate (often dodgy) moustaches during November to raise awareness and raise money for men’s health issues, including prostate cancer, testicular cancer and men’s mental health and suicide.
Despite these advances, taboos remain around men talking about their health, be it physical or mental, and there is still work to do to remove these taboos in the workplace and general life. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most prevalent taboos affecting men in the workplace currently, as well as what we can begin to do about these pressing issues.
Researchers have identified that men are more inclined to engage in health-risking behaviour, such as smoking and excessive drinking, to conform to masculine group statuses and argue that gender may be one of the strongest predictors of health behaviour. This is further demonstrated by a quick Google search on men’s drinking, which reveals numerous websites on “How to Drink Like a Man”.
These behaviours can negatively impact health, making it all the more important to encourage men to talk about their wellbeing.
History of masculinity
The widely held concepts of masculinity date back thousands of years to when early humans used strength and dominance to ward off danger and provide for the family. In this context, aggression, ruthlessness and physical strength were desirable traits.
Since the 1980s, these typical behaviours have become incompatible with the standards of contemporary society as they are no longer required to survive or become successful. In theory, these expected norms around masculinity should have fallen away over the years. Still, many men in the workplace will have been brought up to believe that strength and a lack of emotion constitute manliness.
Toxic masculinity refers to this adherence to traditional gender roles that place significant importance on ‘manliness’ based on strength, lack of emotion, self-sufficiency, dominance and sexual virility. If a man believes he is not meeting these exaggerated traits, he may feel he is falling short of being a ‘real man’. Common phrases such as “man up”, “boys don’t cry”, and “be a man” unfortunately feed into this notion.
It is important to note that times, like the approach and attitude of many men in the workplace, have changed. While we shouldn’t fall into the trap of assuming toxic masculinity always applies in every case, society’s influence on men has strongly maintained that direction, and for so long, men should have the confidence to be reminded what positive masculinity looks like and help further guide the evolution.
While wanting to feel strong and in control are not inherently negative things, research shows that when these expectations conflict with an individual’s emotions or sense of self, great amounts of pain, emotional conflict and behavioural problems can arise.
When men feel that they must conform to expectations of self-reliance and power over others, there is an association with increased distress and poor mental health. In addition, men who feel unable to freely speak about emotions and feelings may be less able to recognise mental health problems in themselves and thus are less likely to seek support. This also extends to physical health when men don’t want to display any weakness in their physical self and therefore delay going to a doctor or other professional, allowing the problem to worsen.
In general, men are less likely to disclose their health concerns to family members or friends. It is common for men with depression to hide their emotions, appearing angry, irritable or aggressive. In comparison, women with depression are more likely to reach out and express their sadness.
Suppressed emotions that manifest differently, like anger or irritability, for example, can lead to conflict. There can also be misunderstandings and miscommunications between men and their loved ones that stem from an unwillingness or clear example of how to express true feelings. In addition, problems around self-medication with alcohol or other substances and other risky behaviours often arise in men with depression which can exacerbate mental health problems and create other health issues. Removing taboos is critical in encouraging men to seek help, and this is a role that an employer can play.
What can employers do to remove men’s health taboos?
Businesses should foster an environment where employees can openly discuss issues with a trusted person before they culminate in serious problems. There should be flexibility, education and understanding to ensure employees’ needs are met. This kind of atmosphere will help employees feel valued, recognised, listened to and cared for, as well as genuinely protecting their wellbeing. With around 40 hours a week spent working, the workplace needs to be a safe space for men to express themselves and receive any support they may need.
Having easily accessible, confidential resources, whether self-help or professional, is essential. Research suggests that men seek and access help when they feel that the help being offered meets their preferences and is meaningful, easily accessed and engaging.
This month is Men’s Health Month, and the progression in destigmatising men’s health over recent years is certainly encouraging. It is now time for employers to take an active role in removing current taboos by showing men that they are there to support them when they need it and that concerns and vulnerability will not lose them respect or authority within the workplace.
Information and education are key components to a healthy workplace environment, plus access to resources that will help build an open and honest workplace culture that unconditionally supports all employees’ health and wellbeing. Visit www.wrkit.com.