Employers are getting better at managing and supporting mental ill health but, still too often, men in particular can fall through the cracks, ending up disengaged or disconnected from health interventions. Emily Pearson looks at how one community programme is working to change this narrative, and what lessons employers may be able to learn.
The experience of my mental health consultancy, Our Mind’s Work, is that, although many workplaces are seeing the benefits of investing in mental health initiatives, they are failing to engage their male workforce in particular.
This is potentially leaving many men feeling unrepresented and disengaged from generic, mainly female-led, interventions in the workplace. Yet, men face significant health and wellbeing concerns that put them at significantly higher risk than women of dying before they are 65 because of five, largely preventable, health problems: one in five working-age men die from heart disease, prostate cancer, lung cancer, bowel cancer and suicide every year in the UK.
Persistent stigma around male mental ill health
Whichever way you look at the statistics, many men fall foul of entrenched and preventable health conditions through gender-specific, culturally endemic socialisation, particularly around machismo that creates male-specific stigma and prevents them from seeking help.
Men’s mental health
Having seen the results of these issues first hand within the health and social care system, it is a tragedy that men feel disengaged from health initiatives at work, initiatives that could help break often progressively more destructive cycles of behaviour.
The reasons behind this are various and complex. They include men being less likely than women to make use of almost all forms of primary healthcare provision, feeling shamed by stigma or embarrassed to seek help when they need it.
One of the five biggest causes of death for men of working age is suicide – which increases in their early twenties then again in men aged 40.
Although women attempt suicide more often than men, men die by suicide at a much higher rate because of the methods they use being more likely to be successful – and leaving no time for intervention.
Each mortality is, of course, a loss to our families, communities and our workplaces, with an estimated 676,000 years of life lost every year in the working-age male population, mainly through preventable and premature death.
Yet there is a big disconnect with current workplace initiatives, with a focus on waiting for men to ‘reach out for help’ rather than reaching out to men to increase their awareness and promote early intervention.
This is a national tragedy in many blue-collar sectors, especially in the construction industry, where suicide rates are three times the national average.
Adopting mental health best practice that achieves buy-in from employers and engages the male workforce could greatly improve productivity, reduce sick days and, quite simply, save lives. This was the catalyst for developing ‘ManBassador’, an employer peer-to-peer support programme specifically for men.
The ‘ManBassador’ programme
To get a feel for how this approach can work in practice we developed the ManBassador programme with Paul Bannister, who six years ago founded community interest company ManHealth CIC, also a peer-to-peer male group mental wellbeing service after his own struggles with mental ill health.
ManHealth operates non-judgemental weekly support groups for men across the north east of England, working with local authorities and many organisations to tackle endemic issues and helping hundreds of men across the region.
This puts Paul and his team of group facilitators with lived experience of male mental ill health in an excellent position to understand male-specific workplace mental health issues and deliver the two-day ManBassador programme.
Paul and his team have lived experience of common issues including anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation, these symptoms and others often triggered by excessive work place stress.
The ManBassador programme is a two-day online package offered to employers who can then offer this training to their male staff to become trusted mental health advocates or ManBassadors and take back their learnings and sign posting on to the shop floor, construction sites and other workplaces.
These blue-collar advocates undertake training to achieve the Men’s Health Ambassador Certificate, which is delivered by the ManHealth team and accredited by OCN Credit4Learning. The course is delivered using engaging, blended learning techniques via Zoom and a toolkit of resources is also provided.
In my experience many workplace mental wellbeing initiatives focus on generic mental ill health and don’t aim to engage harder-to-reach groups, especially men.” – Paul Bannister, ManHealth and the ManBassador programme
Bannister says: “In my experience many workplace mental wellbeing initiatives focus on generic mental ill health and don’t aim to engage harder-to-reach groups, especially men, whereas informed by our ManHealth experience over six years the ManBassador Programme is more outcome-specific and is far more likely to reach men who need it.
“Issues are often created by the societal demands on working men, often as a result of the perception of what masculinity is and the misconception that showing vulnerability is somehow ‘weak’ when the opposite is the case. This is at the root of many of the health issues [men face] and results in men being far less likely to seek help for both physical and mental support.
“Some statistics are staggering – where in male-dominated sectors, such as construction, manufacturing and logistics, stress and poor mental health left unchecked can lead to mental illness, preventable suicide and can be a cause of more accidents and injuries at work,” Bannister adds.
The majority of men struggle to risk-assess their own mental and physical health, and can adopt an ostrich-like head-in-the-ground attitude towards their own health, meaning targeting partners can be a good ‘way in’ to men’s health.
“We know that, from a family perspective, the wives, mothers and sisters can be a primary support for their male loved ones, and often worry more about their family’s health, more than men do about their own health,” Bannister explains.
“It is hoped the ManBassador programme adopted by enough employers and offered to their male staff will positively impact women’s lives as a learning and signposting resource that will benefit both male and female employees going beyond the workplace and transferring back in to communities as men become role models for good health,” he adds.