Jump to section
Most men find it easy to discuss embarrassing physical health issues without hesitation. Yet, when it comes to our mental health, there’s a prevailing belief that it’s better to keep these matters to ourselves.
I’ve personally encountered this belief since my teenage years, through college, and into the present. It stems from societal expectations of masculinity and various environmental factors discouraging vulnerability. Men often fear being perceived as weak by their peers.
In my experience, this pattern of avoiding vulnerability started in sixth grade, as my friends and I emulated the behavior of my closest friend’s older brother and his group—all admired for their toughness on the football field. These ideals were further reinforced by the portrayal of male characters in the media we consume, who never engaged in real conversations about their emotions with their peers.
Over the past 30 years, within my network of friends, there’s been a shared understanding that displaying weakness or vulnerability is deemed unacceptable in our ultra-masculine culture.
The key indicators continue to trend in the wrong direction
Anxiety and depression impact one in ten men, yet less than half of them seek mental health treatment. According to Mental Health America, over 6 million men are affected by depression each year, with many cases either under-diagnosed or untreated.
Suicide remains a leading cause of death among working-age males. While suicide results from many factors, the increasing rates of depression documented among men since 2021 have certainly contributed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently shared alarming numbers, which show that suicides are more common in the U.S. now than at any time since World War II.
Men often have ingrained perceptions that label depression and anxiety not as natural aspects of the human experience, but as indicators of fundamental weakness, shame, and embarrassment.
Avoiding challenging discussions about mental health throughout our lives can lead to an unwillingness to confront or properly manage emotions in the workplace, where various triggers may arise.
How leaders can be catalysts for meaningful change in mental health
So, how can HR and People leaders play a role in fostering meaningful change in male mental health? It starts with dismantling the stigma surrounding men’s mental health. Leading by example and initiating difficult conversations with empathy are effective ways to achieve this.
Establishing safe spaces where male employees feel comfortable discussing mental health concerns with their manager is also key. Creating an inclusive, non-judgmental, empathetic workplace culture forms the foundation for this, and when other leaders share their own experiences, it can inspire others to open up.
A noteworthy example is the Creators Summit on Mental Health, an initiative by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. During a panel discussion about ending the stigma and empowering men to prioritize mental health, Dr. Martin Pierre, Ph.D., former president of the Massachusetts Psychological Association, emphasized the power of connection.
He states, “Connection allows men to recognize their own humanity…safe spaces allow men to bear witness to each other’s pain as a way of debriefing and affirming and allowing them to be vulnerable with each other … when you reveal, you heal.”
Leaders can take several important steps to become catalysts for meaningful change in male mental health support.
Effective communication strategies and active listening
Movember, a global non-profit organization, is tackling the men’s health crisis by funding groundbreaking projects and providing reliable, expert information to help men cope and live happier, healthier, and longer lives.
They suggest a four-step approach called ALEC—ask, listen, encourage action, check in—as a guide for leaders when initiating, conducting, and following up on important conversations with male employees struggling with mental health challenges.
How to ask
Having honest conversations about mental health can be as simple as asking employees how they are and what’s been happening lately. The key to helping someone open up is asking the right questions at the right time.
The experts at Movember emphasize the benefits of casually bringing up what you’ve noticed in private conversation with the employee, as opening up and expressing emotions doesn't come naturally for men. Whether it’s actions or behavior that is different or out of character, asking some leading questions in a non-confrontational way is a great strategy to ignite meaningful conversation.
How to listen
Active listening is more than hearing employees speak. A good listener, especially in a leader, necessitates complete focus and undivided attention during a conversation to understand the possible issues fully. There is a temptation to listen without hearing because we are so focused on replying with the right things or conveying personal points of view. This can cause us to miss out on important things the employee communicates.
How to encourage action
Encouraging your employees to take action on the topics discussed, on any level, is an important step toward recovery and improved mental health.
The Movember experts say that one of the best ways to support male employees is to guide possible solutions. The caveat is that you need to be cautious, not push too hard, and be sensitive to what they’re going through. What may sound very simple or easily achievable to you may be an incomprehensible challenge to them.
How to check in
Regularly checking in with your employees is a vital step after one-on-one conversations about mental health and emotional well-being.
Movember reminds us that you’ll never make things worse by regularly reaching out to male employees. This shows them they're not alone and that you mean what you’ve said. Your actions in supporting them will speak volumes.
Promoting men’s mental health in the workplace requires leading by example through actions, not just words. Leaders can effectively set an example and break down long-held stigmas by:
- Prioritizing their own mental health
- Openly discussing their struggles with mental health
- Sharing personal experiences and positive outcomes achieved through seeking help
Awareness of the signs of struggle
A critical skill to develop is the ability to discern warning signs of at-risk male employees struggling with mental health challenges. This is often honed during comprehensive training, equipping HR and People leaders with tools for approaching employees strategically and initiating exploratory conversations.
One-on-one leadership training teaches managers and supervisors how to identify struggling employees and address any stigma hindering them from seeking help. Mental Health First Aid training is also valuable, providing participants with the knowledge to recognize, understand, and respond to mental health and substance use issues.
Here are a few warning signs to look out for:
- Poor work performance
- Difficulty concentrating or completing tasks
- Withdrawal or a sudden drop in communication with others
- Gradual increase in days out of office (sick days)
- Noticeable changes in mood, energy level, or appetite
- Tendency to engage in conflict
Duty of care: How to help male employees to seek support
As an HR leader, here are several additional strategies to encourage your male employees to seek help for their mental health challenges:
- Avoid assumptions: Don’t assume employees have everything they need to care for their mental health. Even if your organization has a healthcare plan or EAP with a mental health component, ensure that actual needs are being met. Advocate for sufficient mental health support if necessary.
- Shift focus to engagement: Once a mental health solution is in place, focus on engaging male employees. This requires a commitment from HR leaders, involving financial investment in mental health support and a genuine dedication to duty of care. Provide flexibility for employees to attend therapy when needed and ensure they receive effective care.
- Proactive presence: Be proactive and present in exploring innovative ways to stay informed about male employees’ mental health needs. Addressing issues requires specific knowledge, so be informed and proactive in creating solutions.
Provide employees with expanded access to precision mental healthcare
An innovative EAP like Spring Health offers expanded access to precise, personal, and proven mental healthcare while maintaining 100% confidentiality. An advanced EAP program can be a catalyst for normalizing support for male workers, dismantling barriers reinforced by stigma that prevent them from seeking the help they need.
Supporting mental health and well-being in the workplace leads to healthier, happier, and more engaged employees who can be fully present at work. This, in turn, contributes to increased productivity and improved results for your company.
Remember, everyone is going through something, and therapy can be a valuable resource for support.
Learn how employers can better support working men to balance work commitments and fatherhood responsibilities.