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Lucie Ironman, Psychological Wellbeing Facilitator, Vita Health Group.

When it comes to mental health, men are so often told to, ‘man up’, ‘grow a pair’, ‘don’t be such a girl’. Many of us are familiar with these phrases, right from childhood, through our school years and even into our professional lives. But the reality is that these phrases are toxic and are so often used with little or no thought as to the harm they may cause.

How toxic language impacts an individual’s mental health.

Mental health can manifest in many different symptoms and behaviours, including (but not limited to) irritability, reckless behaviour, alcohol or drug misuse or the practice of escapist behaviour, such as spending a lot more hours working or obsessing over a hobby.

These behaviours are often a sign that someone is burying their head, along with their mental health, in the sand. Mental health is not limited to the home, and some people may notice someone manifesting these symptoms in the workplace. But do we ever stop to ask ourselves why this might be the case? Why does this individual, perhaps a colleague, not want to confront their emotions or accept their struggle?

Some of the answers exist in the way we have been brought up and the attitudes we have experienced around mental health and wellbeing. The toxic language attached to the mental health of men, for example, ‘crying like a girl’ and ‘grow a pair’ invalidates how an individual may be feeling and insinuates that it is a weakness if they cannot quickly and silently deal with their emotions.

These phrases can worm themselves into our belief systems and alter the way we view and interpret the world for our entire lives. I cannot help but wonder how many of the men who took their lives did so because they felt they could not reach out for support, and instead tried to accomplish something impossible like ‘manning up’ or ‘growing a pair’.

In addition, there appears to be a common notion that not all individuals can experience mental health difficulties. Without doubt, men are not exempt and study after study proves that; one in eight men have a common mental health problem; men are nearly three times more likely than women to become alcohol dependent; a man is three times more likely to take their life, our own research has shown that more than 50% of fathers felt overwhelmed by changes to life due to the Covid-19 pandemic; the Google search volume for ‘men’s mental health charity’ has increased by 40%. It is an extensive list that puts this misconception to bed.

The consequence of stereotyping in the workplace.

Research by Samaritans suggests that societal expectations of the ‘role’ of a male – to be strong, to provide, to support – have a huge impact on mental health. It is an idealised view that requires men to not feel, share emotion, or admit to struggling or needing help. In the workplace, it requires men to power through no matter what the consequence is on their health. Plus, any implication that a man is invincible, or untouchable can make an individual feel they do not have a right to ask for help if they need it.

Indeed, this stigma goes some way in explaining why men are much less likely to access mental health services. Research has shown that only 36% of mental health referrals are for men. It also begs the question, if men are expected to do all the providing and supporting, who is providing and supporting them?

To tackle the inequality that exists with male mental health in the workplace, it is important that organisations ditch harmful standards of work-life balance and give men space to express their vulnerability. Admittedly, to create this safe environment a company needs a culture of trust and that is not something that can happen overnight. However, there are some small steps a company can take to create an inclusive, caring, and open culture that can help the men in the workplace feel they have a right to seek support, and language is a good place to start.

We’ve seen that the words around male mental health can trigger low emotion and depressive thoughts. As such, instead of using words and phrases that may result in someone shutting down their emotions, line managers, HR and employees should look to use terminology that shows compassion and care. As always, it is essential to try to create an open dialogue between the line manager and the employee. Role modelling these behaviours amongst leaders, both with the language they use and by demonstrating that it is safe to be vulnerable, will help build a culture men can open up in.

Everyone in the workplace must stop and take note of the impact toxic language is having on men and those who identify as male. The key here is to encourage every employee to consciously change their approach to how they talk about male mental health. Irrelevant of gender, societal status, or identity, it is critical men are not made to feel ashamed to look after their mind. Afterall, building an open culture around mental health in the workplace is not just the ethical and moral thing to do, but it makes good business sense too. Ultimately the wellbeing of the employees in the workplace will always have a positive impact on business performance and the bottom line, too.

It is never O.K. to tell someone to ‘man up’. Now’s the time to give men a voice, normalise conversations around mental health and take down the barriers that so often prevent men accessing life-saving support.–