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Men's mental health is really suffering, a new study shows

Here's why and what can be done about it at work.

Editor’s note: This story deals with suicide and thoughts of suicide. 

In a crisis situation, call 911; for crisis counselling, reach out to the BC Crisis Centre (1-800-SUICIDE: 1-800-784-2433).

Our male co-workers are likely not alright. 

That is the main takeaway from a recent UBC “Men’s Mental Health in the Workplace survey” of B.C. men.

This should not come as a surprise, given men account for 75 to 80% of deaths by suicide in Canada.

Because adults spend so much time at work, the study notes that work programs could help "facilitate the creation of workplace norms that reduce stigma and facilitate help-seeking, issues that have been well-documented as factors that impact men’s access to mental health services."

But there has been a gap in research into men's mental health to help inform those programs that would help. 

Thus, the survey aims to fill that gap.

The study of 1,450 self-identifying men 18 years old or older living and working in Canada was conducted online between June 25, 2021, and Feb. 28, 2022.

Some of the more alarming stats from the survey — which was performed by the HeadsUpGuys in partnership with Community Savings Credit Union — include that about 55% of respondents reported being lonely.

About 50% reported a high level of distress concealment, meaning they hide how they feel. 

About half of those surveyed scored above the threshold for probable major depression; one in 10 of the men registered in the severe range of probable depression.

For Mike Schilling, president and CEO of Community Savings Credit Union, the loneliness and level of depression in the survey saddened him the most. 

“If we could see mental health issues in the way that we see physical health issues — if you went into the office, and a third of your colleagues had their arms in slings and then a third is hobbling down on crutches, obviously, you’d think something had gone disastrously wrong. And it would have, but really, that is the reality,” he said. 

“That’s the reality that we’re dealing with; it’s just invisible, but it’s so pervasive, and it impacts so many people on a day-to-day basis.”

About 50% of survey respondents reported never asking for help.

What is more, 35% of survey respondents experienced thoughts of suicide or self-injury at least a few times a week.

Hazardous drinking or active alcohol use disorders were reported by 42% of respondents. 

The study showed that 11% of all respondents experienced weekly or daily bullying, while 5-6% were subjected to sexual harassment, threats of violence, and physical violence on a weekly to daily basis.

About 35% of workers reported feeling dread about going to work.

Despite progress on equality between the sexes and plenty of discussion around gender norms, Schilling said that the weight of the pandemic and now the threat of a recession have an unequal impact on many men. 

“As we know, in this world full of toxic masculinity, financial burdens are often perceived to fall on men,” he said. 

“We live in 2022. Most households have two people in it [who are] double earners ... but when we’re under stress, we do fall back on those maybe old-fashioned ideas or ideas about what we should do. Every part of your life suddenly becomes negative. You lose confidence in your ability to work hard to provide for your family, to be a good partner, parent or friend, whatever.”

Construction industry

With so much building going on or planned in Squamish, professor of psychiatry Dr. John Ogrodniczuk, who is the founder of the HeadsUpGuys men’s health program, said while the construction industry has made leaps and bounds when it comes to physical safety, more work could be done on mental health safety. 

The attitude on some work sites may be “suck it up and get on with it; we got a tight deadline,” which may discourage workers from disclosing mental health struggles, Ogrodniczuk said. 

He said that while he expected to see men’s mental health issues reflected in the survey, the stark reality of the results shocked him. 

“More than half the guys have said they’re really lonely. The screening for probable depression, we’re approaching half [of men surveyed]. Holy crap,” he said. “Even 35% saying that they dread going to work — think of it: most adults spend the majority of their waking hours at work. And if you have a third of workers saying they actually dread going to work, just think how demoralizing and depleting that is.”

What would help?

The workers' feedback helped researchers develop a laundry list of things employers could do to improve the mental health of their workers. 

Shifting the culture of workplaces is key. 

The researchers recommend employers prioritize mental health and suicide prevention health and safety. 

"Leadership must model this. Regularly promote mental health practices and make resources known to employees" is one recommendation. 

Based on worker feedback, another recommendation is to "detect early symptoms for depression, anxiety, substance abuse and anger; integrate self-check tools into regular employee check-ups; training for managers/supervisors to identify signs of possible distress; leadership training focused on how to have conversations around mental health."

Another recommendation is to face bullying and harassment head-on in workplaces. 

"Provide mandatory training on workplace bullying and harassment. Design, communicate, and implement zero-tolerance policies regarding bullying and harassment in the workplace," the researchers said. 

Creating more of a sense of community at work — something survey respondents said was lacking — could be created if employers "organize company/department-wide social events; group-based stress-reduction activities at work/during work hours; provision of spaces in the office to facilitate social connection."

Workers’ desire for clear and fair expectations could be met by "increasing workers’ influence on deadlines and deliverables; develop clear priorities; regular review of workloads; provide support and guidance around task management," the researchers said. 

Researchers also recommend employers "provide flexible work arrangements, if at all possible; emphasis on results and progress rather than hours logged; increase paid time off; leadership must model healthy work-life balance for staff to follow."

Won’t workers take advantage?

But if employers allow more mental health time and support, what if workers take advantage and productivity decreases? 

Schilling said that what they have found in his company — which is made up of roughly 30% men — is that it doesn’t happen, or if it does, it is the exception rather than the rule. 

“Our philosophy on this is, do we build policies based on the one or two people who will take advantage of it? Or do you do it on the 99 people who actually are going to benefit?”

Schilling said ultimately, he couldn’t think of a single person who took advantage of what the company has renamed ‘health days” from sick days. 

“During the pandemic, we allowed people to take unlimited paid sick days if they were impacted because of COVID,” he said, adding the fear no one would come to work was unwarranted. “It didn’t happen. Everyone showed up,” he said. 

“I think if you treat people like adults, they behave like adults, and they respect that. That’s what we do and we get it paid back. We absolutely do.”

Schilling called on other employers to take steps to improve workers’ mental health. 

“We’re calling on progressive employers to take the lead here, to make the changes … and that’s about taking away stigma from these conversations. It’s about leaders talking openly about these issues.”

Ogrodniczuk said one silver lining of the pandemic is that more men are reaching out and asking for help.

"Anecdotally, my private practice for therapy has always been male-heavy. Since the pandemic … it's been virtually, males-exclusively: men reaching out. And part of the reason is that through the adoption of video technology to deliver services, all of a sudden... I've got guys still from the basement, from the garage, from their truck, from a little cubby hole in a construction site, or they go for a walk. And I can guarantee that none of [those] guys would have walked through my door," he said. 

When it comes down to it, that is his main message — get help if you need it. 

"Not only is it OK to reach out when you need help, but, really, it's your duty to yourself and those around you to get the help when you need it."

Find out more by going to the HeadsUpGuys website. 

Song 'The Lonely Man' by Bill Jeffery.

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