Triggers: This article talks about suicide
For most people, if they knew their son, brother, father, partner, friend, a colleague was at risk of death, they would do something to prevent it from happening, wouldn’t they. Death by suicide is the biggest killer for men under 45 years old and 45-49.
Take a minute and let that sink in-how many men in your life might be impacted. Men’s mental health matters. Imagine if workplaces did not just contribute to preventing these deaths but were environments that improved men’s mental health. This isn’t a pipe dream, it is achievable, but it does require courage, whole-heartedness, and commitment.
Macho, macho men
The narratives within society, cultures and families are layered about what it means to be a man. They are the breadwinner, robust (meaning they don’t show emotion), and in control. Although these in and of themselves are not ‘bad,’ they do create barriers impacting men connecting with themselves, reaching out for support, and accepting when others reach in.
Within your organisation, everyone has a part in changing this narrative and breaking down its associated stigma. This can be achieved formally and informally through psychological first aid training for every staff member, irrespective of their position, office chat, check-ins at meetings, and campaigns.
Most organisations want to create a culture where staff feel valued and nurtured. In the absence of a psychologically safe environment, this is impossible to achieve. Creating this involves staff knowing they can share their feelings without fear of ridicule, judgement, or punishment. Check what behaviour is rewarded for men in your organisation, whether working overtime, competitiveness, or not showing emotions. Whatever it might be, essentially do staff know that men’s mental health matters, how to identify it, have open conversations about it, and signpost to relevant organisations.
It isn’t as it seems
Behaviour and the person are not the same things. Let me explain. Depression doesn’t discriminate- it affects both men and women. However, its presentation across genders does differ.
When men are experiencing depression, they are more likely to experience irritability, increased loss of control, sudden anger, aggression, and elevated risk-taking behaviours. Therefore, reaching into someone you worry might respond in a verbally aggressive or dismissive way might understandably be off-putting.
However, suppose all staff are aware of the gender differences mental symptoms present, and collectively as an organisation are committed to changing this. In that case, it’s agreed how this will be addressed, which might help colleagues reach in and men feel better able to receive that support. This could ultimately be life-changing and life-saving for some.
Having organisational values can help provide clarity to support this. When workplaces are clear on their values (step one), operationalise these by establishing the behaviours that align to them (step two), and communicate these to their staff and ensure their understanding (step three), it is then creating expectations how staff will behave.
Open dialogue, top-down and bottom-up, can help staff to follow workplace values consistently. It ensures that staff are accountable, given that this is required if a change is to happen. The leadership role is essential for workers to know that men’s mental health matters and the behaviours that reflect this.
Shame has many faces
No one is impervious from feeling shame. However, when shame is at the core of an individual’s distress, they are more likely to isolate and turn in on themselves. Therefore, offerings of support or help can be redundant. Again, shame can present in behaviours such as being dismissive, aggressive, or angry.
When the expectation for men is not to appear weak, and yet they feel vulnerable, distressed, anxious, or low in mood, every part of their being will want to protect them from ‘being exposed.’ The remedy to shame is relationships. Therefore, peer support and male co-workers normalising the range of emotions they experience can have a significant positive impact. Don’t underestimate the power of listening with empathy and non-judgement.
As a leader, setting a goal that your organisation will improve the mental health of its staff might sound ambitious right now. However, this requires drive, focus, and courage. There remains a gender disparity between CEOs, with men being predominant. Therefore, as a leader, connecting with your stereotypes and biases about how men should feel and behave in your company is an essential first step. Although this self-development work could be an individual journey, it will be more impactful if done alongside staff within your organisation.
As a male leader, modelling to staff the relationship you have with your mental health can ‘give permission’ to others who might need it the most.
If you’ve identified in your organisation that men’s mental health isn’t a priority and there’s something you want to do to address this, I urge you to pause for a moment. When moved to action sometimes, this can be due to our discomfort and wanting to make things right.
However, in rushing to ‘act,’ there’s also a danger that we need to be seen doing something, so capturing what male staff need to address their mental health needs gets lost. Therefore, being open to slowing down, listening to staff, and creating the space for change to happen is something many have to learn to do. Rather than rushing to ‘fix,’ listening, connecting with the person, and fully understanding what changes are needed will reinforce that men’s mental health matters.
In our society, we discuss hope like it is something we want and so instantly have. Courageous leadership commands hope, which can be hard to maintain. It requires a commitment to get alongside the problematic feelings, ride the inevitable peaks and troughs while pursuing the goal and bring everyone on the pursuit. This is in the service of making your workplace somewhere that improves staff’s mental health because fundamentally, they know they matter, and so does their mental health.
By Dr Jan Smith, a chartered psychologist with over 15 years of experience at the forefront of workplace mental health. Keep up to date with her on Instagram @drjansmithinsta