We need to talk about men.
Alright, so some of you might argue that we’ve been doing little else for the last thousand years. But there are some grim statistics about men’s mental health, particularly as it applies to the workplace. According to the charity Mind, men are far more likely to attribute poor mental health to their work than women are; they’re also less likely to seek help, preferring to take refuge in exercise or self-medication. Perhaps we haven’t moved on quite as far, in those thousand years, as we thought we had.
The tragic thing is that this inability to seek help is in itself a mental block - a symptom and a cause at the same time. It’s not the Seventies anymore, and yet many men still seem to be in thrall to the maxim that it’s better to get your head down, get on with it and assume everything will work out ok in the end. It’s somehow weak to open up. Men should be self-sufficient. Everyone has their share of problems. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Get a grip and get on with it.
The toxic burden of staying silent
At OpenBlend, our own experience and research tell us that suffering in a bubble isn’t just damaging to the individual - it affects the balance of trust within the work environment. When someone goes to work under a dark cloud, it affects everyone around them too. People withdraw from the group and candour is harder to come by. In essence, people talk less (and less frankly), and that inevitably leads to stagnation and disengagement.
We’ve talked in the past about performance enablers - the factors which allow us to bring our best selves and deliver our best work. And although this article isn’t about performance, one of those very factors - “My Self” - is reliant on people feeling able to be themselves in the workplace. It’s worth interrogating that for a second. We need to draw a distinction between how people present themselves - their “work face” - and how they actually experience their working lives. If someone persistently tries to cover up how they’re actually feeling, they’re placing themself under extra psychological strain, pushing back not just against the factors that are worrying them but also the environmental demands of seeming unconcerned about them. That’s not a recipe for psychological safety: it’s a pressure cooker of anxiety which will erode both how they perform and how they contribute to the rest of the team.
Opening up the discussion
So what can managers do to ensure that the strong, silent men in their teams (and everyone else, for that matter) aren’t overwhelmed by the effort of staying strong and silent? Managers may feel uncomfortable broaching personal questions with their team, particularly if a team member is making the effort to preserve a stoical front. Managers need to remember that the issues affecting their people go well beyond having the right software or a clearly mapped plan of career progression. And it’s perfectly possible to discuss personal subjects in a work context - if you have the right prompts.
We have always believed that an effective one-to-one conversation between a manager and an employee needs to go beyond objectives and tools. Leaders need to understand what motivates their people if they are to bring the best out of them and give them the right environment to thrive. One or two simple, searching questions may be all that’s needed here. We’re not asking people to share anything they’re uncomfortable with. We’re not saying that the manager needs to replace the therapist. They just need to be available, be receptive and act, if necessary, to give that struggling team member the support they need.
That support can take many forms. An employee might find a more flexible schedule allows them to seek professional help for their problems, or care for a sick family member. They may need some help in navigating a challenging relationship with another team member. The stress may be directly related to what they do: they may feel out of their depth and in need of some additional advice or coaching to deliver a tricky project. In the end, the details of the problem matter less than the support and availability the manager can demonstrate in helping to resolve it. A manager can show that work is a safe space, where anxieties are listened to and action can be taken to make things better. That’s a powerful thing: a physical and mental reminder that problems can be overcome with collaboration, listening and support.
Stripping away the stigma
This is not about staging an intervention. We believe that this sort of conversation should be a standard part of a good one-to-one. But it may be that some employees (and, based on Mind’s data and our own experience of this, some men in particular) may find it harder to broach these subjects and need more prompting. We include these questions in our templates for manager-employee conversations as standard. And yes, some people are harder to draw out than others. But the value inherent to everyone - employee, manager, team and business - in providing a psychologically safe space can be transformative. It may take a while for the effects to become apparent. Managers need to show that they’re available, then wait for their team member to open up, and building that sort of trust can take time. But we wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s no easy shortcut to this sort of connection and trust. We’re not looking for a superficial quick fix. Show your people that you’re willing to listen. Show, by your actions, that you want to address the problem. The more you make yourself available the more you earn that trust and the easier it becomes to make plans, take action and find solutions, for the benefit of everyone. We all need a little help every now and then. Perhaps International Men’s Day is the right time to start asking for it.