Men’s health: Office surgery

Men are much more reluctant than women to visit their GP about health problems, but it’s possible to reach out to them through the workplace, reports Jo Faragher.

Next week is Men’s Health Week, and the theme for this year’s campaign is Men and Work, highlighting the fact that a significant proportion of men’s health problems are work-related.

Traditionally, men have put off consulting profession advice and treatment when it comes to their health. According to the Office for National Statistics, men are much less likely to visit their GP than women. On average, a man aged 16-24 has a health check once every seven years while a man aged 25 to 39 has a check once every five years. Under the age of 45, men visit their GP only half as often as women do.

However, men are twice as likely as women to both develop, and to die from, the 10 most common cancers affecting both sexes, three times more likely to commit suicide and live, on average, eight years less than women. Sadly, across the whole of adult life, mortality rates are higher for men than women for all the major causes of death.

There is still a stigma attached to certain conditions that affect men, such as testicular cancer and mental illness, with many men too embarrassed to seek medical help until symptoms become severe. For example, more women than men contract malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, but more men die from it because they delay seeing a doctor.

Men at work

The workplace not only contributes to ill health – through stress, depression, exposure to hazardous materials and accidents – but can, with a shift in wellbeing at work policy, act as a valuable resource in improving access to health services for men, according to Peter Baker, chief executive of the Men’s Health Forum.

“Health services need to be targeting men, arranging health promotions about the needs of men and taking into consideration the restrictions faced,” he says.

“Men may not go to the doctor, but they do go to work, so if you deliver health messages at work it’s possible to get men engaged in wellbeing.”

The Men’s Health Forum has already been involved in wellbeing projects with major employers such as Royal Mail, where the workforce consists of around 85% men. A study it conducted in conjunction with the London School of Economics found that overall absence reduced from 7% to 5% between 2004 to 2007 thanks to such initiatives.

Private communication

The way organisations communicate to men around health is crucial. In a programme with BT, for example, the Forum used e-mail and intranet to inform all employees about WorkFit, a 16-week lifestyle change programme. “This private approach suits men best,” says Baker, “they don’t like having to show up at weight management meetings or whatever.”

To help organisations communicate to men the benefits of proactive health management, the forum has developed booklets in the style of the popular Haynes car manuals alerting male staff to a number of work-related health issues.

It’s not about focusing on just one section of the workforce, either. Ultimately, any wellbeing programmes that will benefit men will be positive for everyone, concludes Baker.

“The Black Review has highlighted the role of occupational health and employers in delivering public health objectives and there’s now a clear return on investment for these initiatives. It’s a golden opportunity,” he says.

Wellbeing in practice: ‘Colin the Cabbie’

Taxi driving is an occupation dominated by men, with irregular work schedules and minimal contact with colleagues, one of the unhealthiest mentally and physically.

Recently the Sefton Primary Care Trust (PCT) in Merseyside introduced an initiative called ‘Colin the Cabbie’ aimed at encouraging drivers to become more health aware and increase their access to health information and services.

This included producing a 12-page booklet specifically tailored to life on the road with information regarding stress management, smoking cessation and sensible drinking, among other things. Sefton PCT also produced a healthy eating newsletter and recipe cards featuring seasonal meal ideas. Drivers also had access to a peer mentoring programme where they could meet with other local cabbies and reduce their feelings of isolation.

The greatest impact of the programme was in raising awareness. Almost all participants (96%) felt their knowledge of healthy eating improved, and all but three respondents said they would eat more fruit and vegetables. The number of men accessing the local NHS stop-smoking service also increased.

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