“Ultimately, gender differences are largely caused by things other than gender. . . . The more we understand these forces and their sources and consequences, the more reasons and power we gather to change them.“ Rosenfield and Smith (2009), p. 267.
While times are changing, it’s still all too rare to see men openly discussing mental health struggles, especially in the workplace. Men’s mental health issues are often referred to as the “silent epidemic”. It’s “silent” not because the struggles don’t exist, but because men’s mental health is still not talked about enough, with surprisingly limited research and interventions in place to address it.
The existing research on men’s mental health suggests that psychological distress manifests differently in men compared to women, as do their approaches to coping with it. Regardless of age, nationality, ethnic or racial background, however, a consistent pattern emerges – men are less likely than women to seek help from mental health care professionals.
More recent research also reveals that men are often unwilling to express or acknowledge psychological distress and are reluctant to share their distress, even with close family, colleagues, and friends.
In this article, we won’t dive into dissecting the different driving forces behind trends in men’s mental health. That’s a topic worth exploring in its own right – for more, check out our article on masculine social norms and their impact on men’s mental health.
Instead, we’ll explore men’s mental health at work and, more importantly, how we can collectively break the silence to foster an inclusive and supportive workplace.
Men’s mental health at work
Wellbeing statistics from Statistics NZ in 2021 estimated that more than one in four Kiwis are experiencing “poor” mental wellbeing, a rate similar to what we have found in our Umbrella Wellbeing Assessment. While women generally report higher rates of depression and anxiety, men die by suicide at a much higher rate than do women.
Considering that many of us spend the majority of our waking hours at work, it’s important to understand and manage mental wellbeing at work, whether we lead a team or not.
Further, given that men are less likely to seek help, especially in the workplace, the challenge lies in identifying signs of distress, in ourselves and others. It’s when we can notice these warning signs that we are able to support those around us and openly discuss how we’re doing.
Researchers have pointed out that distress in men can show up in different ways compared to women. These are patterns that we can look out for in ourselves, and others. Remember, it is useful to think in terms of changes we are seeing, rather than blanket rules. It may not be unusual for one colleague to regularly decline happy-hour invitations, for example, but for another colleague (who is usually sociable and engaged), this may ring alarm bells.
- Distraction: Excessive time on devices or playing video games, showing workaholic tendencies such as over-investing at work, and difficulty concentrating.
“You just try to keep busy, don’t think about it, just sit around doing things…. Work, surf, just stuff that takes your mind off everything else.”*
- Escaping: Frequent and heavy drinking, binge eating, or acting out of character.
“A lot of guys drink a fair bit more … and sort of neglect the problem and just drink it away.”
- Withdrawal: Declining invitations to social gatherings, isolating oneself at work or at home, and taking an excessive number of sick days.
“During those tough times, I didn’t join the team for lunches, and I often turned down post-work social activities. I just wanted to be alone.”
- Externalisation: High irritability, aggression towards self and others, and getting frustrated with colleagues.
“I’ll probably keep two or three problems together… until it boils over with a bit more force, I guess, than necessary.”
*Note: These quotes come from anonymous participants from an Australian and New Zealand study examining men’s experience with mental health and depression.
The role of psychological safety
Irrespective of gender, a key factor that plays a pivotal role in addressing mental health at work is psychological safety.
Psychological safety refers to a shared belief that a workplace is safe for “interpersonal risk-taking”. This means employees feel safe speaking up, discussing their concerns and identifying problems. In creating a psychologically safe workplace, people are treated with compassion without the fear of judgement from others.
At Umbrella, we offer a half-day Psychological Safety workshop that weaves research into real-life scenarios. This workshop guides leaders in building psychologically safe workplaces and effective teams.
We also measure psychological safety in our Wellbeing Assessment, so that organisations can understand how psychologically safe their people really feel. These insights are then used to inform decisions and next steps, to best support employee wellbeing.
Psychological safety, along with the active de-stigmatisation of mental distress, is particularly important when it comes to men who are traditionally less likely to open up about their feelings. This not only benefits the employees, but also contributes to a healthier and more productive workplace. So, how can managers and co-workers do their bit to actively support mental health at work?
Tips for managers
- Lead by example: Managers should set the tone by openly discussing their own mental health experiences or challenges, however big or small. For example, during a one-on-one meeting with an employee, saying, “The past few weeks have been really stressful … I’ve been trying to manage these new projects that we’re working on, along with taking care of my sick mother. It’s been a real juggling act lately. I managed to take some time off this week to rest and look after my mother, so I’m doing better. How’s everything going on your end?” This vulnerability can encourage others to do the same and helps to normalise the idea that it’s OK to talk about our emotions and struggles at work.
- Training and awareness: For some, navigating mental health and supporting others might come naturally. For others, this may require some fine-tuning to be able to recognise signs of distress and learn how to approach employees with care and empathy. Regardless of our ability to empathise, it’s a skill to be able to support team members to feel more confident talking about mental health at work and to raise concerns that they may be worried about. Learn how to normalise mental health and illness, identify signs of stress and engage in compassionate conversations through our training https://umbrella.org.nz/mental-health-training-at-work-nz/.
- Ensure your people are aware of your EAP services, and other support systems: Employee assistance programmes offer employees a safe space to seek assistance for a wide range of personal and work-related challenges, including mental health concerns. Managers play a crucial role in making sure employees know where to seek mental health and wellbeing support, and how. Again, if managers’ experiences with EAP services are shared, this can help to reduce the stigma commonly associated with seeking help.
- Create space for team connection and support. In Umbrella’s new book and training programme, we dive into the concept of collective wellbeing and how team members can support themselves and one another. As a manager and people leader, you can do your bit by providing time and space for team connections to be strengthened. For example, you could introduce kaimahi across your organisation who might not have met each other, and leave time for whakawhanaungatanga before each meeting.
Tips for co-workers (these tips can also be used by managers)
- Listen actively: When a co-worker opens up about their mental health, be an active listener. Try to avoid judgement and offer support through your presence. Research consistently suggests that active listening (for example, by using gestures that show engagement and holding eye contact) generates greater empathy and acceptance for others.
- Avoid stigmatising language: It’s important to be mindful of the words we use when describing ourselves or others and be wary of using language that generalises or defines a person by their current state of mental wellbeing. You can read more on tackling stigma and mental illness at work here.
- Check in regularly: Make an effort to check in on your co-workers, not just about work but also about how they’re doing. Simply asking someone, “How are you feeling recently?” might be enough to spark an open and honest conversation.
Ultimately, while these tips may be valuable in creating a more supportive environment for mental health in general, it’s crucial to understand that talking about mental health can be challenging for anyone, regardless of gender.
As people in the workforce, even our everyday actions and behaviours can help to open the door and create the safe, non-judgemental space that people need to initiate real conversations about their mental health. If you’re interested in finding more, reach out to our team to see how we can support you and your kaimahi.