How can employers ensure the mental health of male staff is fully supported?

Need to know:

  • Only around a third of referrals to NHS talking therapies are for men but three times as many men as women die by suicide.
  • Promoting low stigma access points, such as debt advice and legal services, will encourage more male employees to use the EAP.
  • Male role models, whether as mental health first aiders, wellbeing champions or senior leaders, will help to create a supportive culture.

With the pandemic expected to have long-lasting effects on the nation’s mental health, looking after this aspect of employees’ wellbeing has never been more important. A slightly different strategy may be required for male staff.

Although it’s dangerous to generalise, men are often more difficult to reach when it comes to mental health. Simon Blake, chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England, says gender stereotypes don’t help. “In a culture where men and women are treated differently and phrases such as ‘man up’ and ‘grow some balls’ are commonplace, it’s difficult for men to talk about their mental health,” he says. “However, they do still experience these issues.”

Support gap

This is supported by the statistics. Only 36% of referrals to NHS talking therapies are for men, according to the Mental Health Act Statistics for 2019-2020. But this hides alarming suicide rates. Three times as many men as women die by suicide, according to the Office for National Statistics, making it the largest cause of death for men aged under 50.

The pandemic is likely to have made matters worse. “Covid-19 (Coronavirus) has made mental health more visible but, with many employees working from home, it’s also made it harder to spot when someone’s having a problem and give them the support they need,” explains Dr Subashini M, associate medical director at Aviva UK Health and Protection.

Gender stereotypes haven’t helped. Fears over health and job security have challenged the traditional role of men as the breadwinner and family protector. Blake adds: “Surveys have shown that around 40% of men would hide their mental health issues from their manager. This will increase when there are worries about job losses.”

Male delivery

Given these statistics, implementing mental health strategies that support male employees is essential. Dr Wolfgang Seidl, workplace health consulting leader at Mercer Marsh Benefits, believes promotion is key. “Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) will often be under-utilised in male-dominated workplaces,” he says. “To overcome this, we’ve done everything from putting EAP posters on toilet doors and factsheets in company vehicles to stitching the phone number into employees’ overalls.”

He also recommends a much broader approach. “Low stigma entry points such as financial and legal issues and consumer law make it easier for men to access support,” he explains.

Variety is also important. As well as helplines, online access and apps ensure more employees feel able to reach out for support. Blake also suggests offering other support services alongside a company EAP. “Options such as Shout, the mental health text service, provide choice and will overcome any concerns about employer-sponsored schemes,” he adds.

Culture club

A safe, supportive culture is also essential. “An employer can have a really rich benefits strategy but if men don’t feel able to ask for help, it’s pointless,” says Dr M.

A variety of approaches can help to create the right culture. Male role models, whether as mental health champions or first aiders, will send out the right signals and extend reach.

Leadership also has a critical role to play according to Andrew Kinder, vice chair of the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) and co-author of Positive Male Mind. “Enabling leaders to talk about their mental health issues can change culture,” he says. “It will help to remove stigmas.”

Workplace practices also need to be examined. Few employees will reach out for help from their employer when chunky workloads, tight deadlines and bullying are the cause of their anxiety or depression.

Focusing on prevention is also positive for workplace culture according to Dr M. “Shared interest groups, whether that’s running, volunteering or art, encourage employees to build friendships,” she explains. “This stops loneliness and gives them a safe space to share their problems.”

Pandemic policy

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Coronavirus has also forced a rethink on some aspects of employers’ mental health support. As well as more line manager training to help them manage employees remotely and identify any signs of mental health issues, Kinder says organisations also need to think about employee loneliness. “It’s hard for remote employees to get to know their colleagues so employers need to look at how they help staff, especially new ones, build friendships,” he says.

Although the pandemic has fuelled mental health issues, Kinder remains positive. “It did raise awareness of mental health, with work by celebrities, footballers and the young royals highlighting men’s mental health,” he says. “Things are beginning to change but we do need to keep it on the agenda.”