How to address male mental ill-health in the workplace

Research indicates that men often defer seeking treatment for mental health conditions until they become severe. What can firms do to encourage male employees to obtain support sooner?

Dave had never really struggled with his mental health before. Working in the hospitality sector in the north of England, he loved his job as a restaurant manager and gained particular satisfaction from his interactions with the public.

But suddenly everything changed. Covid-19 arrived in the UK and the consequent lockdown in March 2020 hit his industry hard. Both Dave and his wife were placed on furlough. When he returned to work in July, a shortage of staff and the consequent increase in his workload quickly took their toll on his mental health. 

“I was given a whole department that I’d never worked in before,” he says, adding that the stress was almost too much to bear. “It was awful, taking me to dark places. I couldn’t sleep and I wasn’t eating, but I started drinking a lot after work.” 

When he approached his manager for help, he broke down in tears in front of him – and felt ashamed of that afterwards. Yet nothing much changed until Dave felt so depressed that he felt he had no other option but to seek medical help. 

“I was eventually prescribed antidepressants and signed off work for what I thought would be a couple of weeks,” he says. “But it turned into months.”

At that point, the company’s HR department stepped in. The situation did start to improve, but its intervention was too late to prevent Dave from leaving the company in early 2021. He’s now pursuing a completely different career, which is giving him the scope to look after his mental wellbeing.

Dave’s experience is not at all rare. According to research published by digital health platform Peppy, 39% of employers say that their male employees will wait until a health problem becomes severe before mentioning it to their line manager or HR team. This propensity to soldier on without telling anyone in a position to help at work will often cause disruption in the organisation. More than a quarter of employers (26%) in the study report that presenteeism – continuing to work when unfit, physically or mentally, to do so – is a problem among their male employees.

In our culture, men are conditioned to believe that showing emotion is a sign of weakness

So what is going on? The pandemic has hit all of us hard, underlining the duty of care that employers have to their workers. According to the Health and Wellbeing at Work 2021 survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD), 45% of employees have experienced a deterioration in their mental health since the start of the Covid crisis. A fractionally larger proportion of women than men have been affected this way. Yet data published by the Office for National Statistics confirms that about three out of every four suicides in this country are by men. Suicide is in fact the biggest cause of death for men aged under 35. Also, men are far more prone to alcoholism. According to the Drink Aware charity, 8.7% of men in the UK are alcohol-dependent, compared with 3.3% of women. 

There is a clear discrepancy between the number of men who are struggling mentally and the number who feel able to talk about this, especially at work. Dave attributes much of this to a deeply ingrained macho culture that encourages men to ‘man up’, keep calm and carry on, however badly they may be suffering inside. 

Jess Baker, a psychologist and women’s leadership coach, agrees. “Men have been socialised to show strength,” she says. “In our culture, they are conditioned to believe that showing emotion is a sign of weakness.” 

Baker believes that progress is being made in this respect, albeit slowly. “There seems to be a growing number of famous men talking about mental health issues, while a lot of women I know are encouraging their sons to discuss how they’re feeling. But, despite such anecdotal evidence, the data indicates that we still have a long way to go,” she says. 

Given that we spend much of our lives in the workplace, employers can do a lot to help accelerate the culture change. The CIPD has found that three-quarters of employers are already offering confidential counselling services and/or employee assistance programmes. But these will be effective only if everyone feels comfortable accepting that they need help and sufficiently empowered to seek it. So what more can be done to ensure that this is the case?

Stressing the important role that managers can play in supporting employee wellbeing, the CIPD’s senior policy adviser on employment relations, Rachel Suff, recommends that all relevant support services are well signposted. 

Baker concurs, stressing that it’s crucial for employers to highlight the fact that anyone can use such services discreetly and anonymously if they so choose. 

“If you are considering how to support your male workforce better, start by asking them what they would use and when and where they would prefer it to be delivered,” she advises, adding that line managers need to stay on the lookout for changes in behaviour among their team members. 

“Perhaps an extrovert becomes quiet and withdrawn in team meetings, or a highly productive person delays completing tasks,” Baker suggests. “In such cases, the most obvious – but sometimes the hardest – thing to do is speak directly with the individual concerned. You might start the conversation by saying something along the lines of: ‘I’ve read this article on stress and I’m checking in with all of my team members…’ You could try asking open questions, but do make sure that you take the time to listen to their answers. Patience is essential, but it’s often overlooked amid the time constraints of office life.” 

Baker warns managers that a positive response to their overtures may not be forthcoming. “It’s common for people to become defensive in such situations and deny that anything is wrong. Try not to be offended by this if it happens,” she says. “Instead, create opportunities for them to approach you when they’re more ready to.”

Most crucially, Baker says, be genuine in your concern for the wellbeing of others. “We humans are very good at detecting inauthenticity,” she says. “However you chose to approach someone showing signs of stress or mental ill-health, if your intention is clearly from the heart, not rooted in the desire to judge them as incapable or cajole them into being more productive, they’ll be more likely to take up your offers of support.” 

Dave reports that stepping away from his stressful working environment has done wonders for his mental health. “I’m now in a really good place,” he says. 

He is also committed to raising awareness of the problems he has faced, in the hope that his openness will help more men to share their difficult feelings and seek help sooner than he did. 

“I will talk about my experiences with any man who would benefit from hearing them,” Dave says. “I won’t give up on this.”