There’s something very manly about keeping quiet about health worries, isn’t there? “Man up!”, “Don’t be a cry baby.”, “No pain, no gain.”, “Stiff upper lip.”
That is the way generations of men have been raised – to internalise emotions and fears. It’s also the reason prostate cancer is only discovered early in 12% of cases for men over 25, compared to early discovery rates of 36% for cervical cancer in women over 25. That’s a staggering difference. It’s a deadly difference.
Beyond physical health and men’s unwillingness to get checked by a professional in the earliest stages of ill health, there are mental health ramifications to this culture of internalisation, too. Men over 45 have the highest suicide rate in the UK, and yet are the least likely to seek counselling or confide in family or friends about stress, worries or other issues. A large reason for this statistic is the toxic masculinity or masculine anxiety that forces men to stay emotionally stoic. This can only lead to further mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Masculinity is a difficult topic to address in the workplace. The old-fashioned expectations of men, and the stereotypes associated with them, impact men’s career paths, relationships, social lives and ultimately their happiness. What is needed is an overhaul of what masculinity means in modern terms. Strength and resilience need to be measured and celebrated not just in a physical sense, but also in terms of mental and emotional fitness.
There are many social constructs that stunt men’s ability to open up about their anxieties, fears and doubts. The preconception of “being a man” is not commonly based on emotional intelligence. Instead, men are forced to bottle up their feelings in exchange for being productive and out-performing their competitors. Toxic masculinity is a concept that disrupts what it should mean to be a man. This set of attitudes and expected ways of behaving have a negative impact on men and on society in general. An example of toxic masculinity might be a need to compete and be aggressive with others in the workplace rather than cooperative.
However, this model is stale. It needs to be recognised that being a man also requires sensitivity, empathy and compassion – attributes historically and culturally more associated with women. The inability to recognise and reward these ‘softer skills’ in men leads to Masculine Anxiety, defined as the distress men feel when they do not think they are living up to society’s rigid standards of masculinity. This is a widespread phenomenon culturally in the twenty-first century and is growing within the workplace.
What can you do to help male employees talk more openly about their physical and mental health, and to help them recognise that expressing their concerns is not a sign of weakness? Promoting self-awareness and self-reflection by employees can help increase happiness in the workplace and avoid future health concerns and long-term absences brought about by bottling up stress and anxiety. Establish regular communication about health and mental health – do what you can to make it normal for men to reflect and share their feelings. Start with online questionnaires that are less confrontational than face to face conversations. Build questions about mental health into catch-up chats and appraisals. Focus the company’s attention on men’s health initiatives and events such as Movember, Men’s Health Month and Prostate Cancer Awareness Day. The investment will pay dividends in terms of staff wellbeing and productivity.
If you have any questions about how you can help address men’s health in your workplace in general or getting men to talk about health in particular, get in touch with us – we have vast experience and expertise in this area and would be happy to help.