How leaders can support men's wellbeing at work

Lesley Cooper explains what businesses can do to ensure male employees feel confident in discussing mental and physical health, and accessing the right support

Men are notoriously reluctant to seek support with their health and are often the last to acknowledge that they are struggling physically or emotionally. Men account for three quarters of premature deaths from heart disease, are twice as likely to die from drug or alcohol abuse and are three times more likely to die from suicide. Depression will affect at least one in eight men, but they are much more likely to be aware of physical effects such as weight loss or feeling tired than changes to how they feel.

Societal norms that still position men as self sufficient, unemotional and ‘tough’ serve to solidify this lack of self awareness and/or willingness to access help, with many men feeling that if they seek support they will be judged as weak or fragile. This is the real barrier to be worked on, as there is little point in providing support services if men are fearful about using them.

Like many other cultural constructs, these beliefs are both self limiting and hard to shift. Leaders can do a lot to lessen the impact of this ingrained reluctance by demonstrating their own health vulnerabilities. By talking openly about challenges they may have faced concerning their own physical and emotional health, they offer up an adjusted narrative. This gives the men who work for them permission to do the same. When higher-ups can be candid about times when they have struggled emotionally or physically, direct reports start to see their own struggles as valid and solid, rather than symbolic of weakness and frailty. 

Language is important too. Leaders are more likely to encourage men to take positive and proactive responsibility for their health if they talk about health and wellbeing in a way that nurtures a shift in mindset – away from interest in physical and emotional health being an ‘(un)necessary evil’ towards recognition that timely action and support when required is a ‘practical investment in personal sustainability’.

When we employ someone, the whole person comes to work, not just the bit that does the job. By acknowledging the man behind the task and recognising that no one is invulnerable, regardless of seniority, it is possible to help male colleagues reframe self care as a form of performance future proofing. This shifts the narrative away from health investment as a sign of fragility, towards pragmatic outlay on performance agility and reliability. Seen in this way seeking health support has nothing to do with weakness and everything to do with shrewd problem solving. For the cultural reasons already mentioned, this is a language many men speak much more readily.

Finding the members on the team who relate most easily to this approach and nominating them men’s health champions can be helpful. Increasing the number of men encouraging more self awareness in other men, and therefore role modelling open dialogue about the universality of health issues for men, really speeds up the process. Collaboration with work sports clubs or other work-sponsored activities to promote and encourage talking about issues with their teammates can also ensure consistent and recurring messaging.

Making sure that everyone involved knows which support resources are available, what they offer and how to access them is important. That way buddies, champions and event/sports club organisers can signpost quickly and easily as required. Making it easier for male employees to attend medical appointments, by allowing them to take place during working hours, is another practical way to increase the likelihood that men will seek help when it is needed. It is also a good idea to ensure that equality and diversity policies make adequate provision for men’s health. 

Raising awareness of high suicide rates in young men, as well as the stress and heart attack statistics in men, can also be useful leverage in encouraging the healthy behaviours that contribute to wellbeing and performance sustainability more generally.

The key message is to encourage as much ‘shed time’ as possible – perhaps by creating opportunities for men to get together and work on individual projects while at the same time talking about how they’re doing. As above, if leaders initiate and attend these types of lunchtime or after work ‘sheds’ it will encourage others.

Lesley Cooper is founder and CEO of WorkingWell and co-author of Brave New Leader