A new study by Anglia Ruskin University in collaboration with the University of Cambridge’s Biomedical Research Centre, published in November 2023 shows that people with severe mental health issues also report serious physical health concerns including cancer. This underscores the interconnectedness of mental and physical wellbeing. While exercise is a hugely positive factor – and studies show people with good mental health are more likely to exercise – the journey to wellbeing is not always straightforward.

Take the scenario of a man who’s struggling with his mental health – feeling low, unable to concentrate as they’re not sleeping very well. The likelihood here is this person may not feel able to exercise regularly which in turn will have a knock-on impact on their mental wellbeing, potentially having a further negative impact on their overall sense of wellbeing. The charity, Mind, reports that one in four people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England, showing that even though it’s not a cure-all, that link is clear, with exercise making leaps for many towards better overall wellbeing.

Over many years working closely with the wellbeing teams at rail companies, I have seen first-hand the difficulties many men experience in both recognising their own struggles with mental health, but also feeling able to reach out for support. Unfortunately, men will often ‘bottle things up’, and avoid talking about their feelings.  That absence or delay in getting help can unfortunately lead to worsening mental health which very sadly we see evidenced in the alarming statistics around male suicide – the rate of suicide among men in the UK is three times higher than it is for women.  I cannot say this enough – it is okay to talk about our mental health!

Starting those conversations is key to addressing the mental health crisis we’re facing in the UK and around the world today. The most successful wellbeing strategies are those which encourage and foster conversations on mental health. If we can get one person to talk about the experience that they’d had, and the way that they were feeling, then it would open up the conversation within the rest of their peer group. I’ve observed this countless times over the years – the effect of men sharing their own experiences of mental health with other men is hugely impactful. We need to encourage people to seek help – speak to trusted colleagues, loved ones or professional services such as an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).

The importance of ‘awareness’ cannot be overstated. We’ve spoken about the prevalence of male mental health issues, but it’s also vitally important that we’re all aware of the support that’s available to help us when we’re struggling. Part of the issue we have is that men usually don’t engage early enough. If they can pick up the phone and get support early then it’s often more effective in addressing those issues and preventing them escalating out of control. It’s not as easy as saying that men don’t pick up the phone and women do because it’s about personalities rather than gender.

HR can help increase awareness by communicating the sources of help that exist. It’s about educating men on how to access the help that they need. It’s not enough to explain how to contact your EAP at induction, it’s a message that needs to be continuously conveyed, throughout the employee’s time with the organisation, as this will increase the likelihood of someone getting the support they need.

Privacy is another barrier; it’s difficult to get people accessing a clinical service provided by their organisation if they don’t feel that the service is 100% confidential. Yet, for those willing to share their experience, having a case study with a name attached is a great way of signalling to others that, ‘It’s ok’ to access support. This is powerful; Narratives with commonality show that you are not alone.

Promoting your business as a psychologically safe environment is another purposeful way of tackling mental health issues, in terms of ensuring that, for example, someone can leave the office early to be at the gym, but the message is not because that’s only good for their physical health but it’s important for their mental health too. This will traditionally happen when good conversations take place between employees and their line managers, where discussions around mental health, workload and balance can happen with fear of those conversations impacting their standing or reputation within the business. Occupational health is another tool, men can be poor at attending health screenings. Providing those screenings at work can help break the pattern of men not taking time out to attend a health assessment and most importantly, reduce absence by offering early intervention and potentially save lives.

As well as an ambivalence to attend a health check, another factor in preventing men from taking up their appointments is fear. Often, they are frightened to find out the reality of what’s going on. EAP’s regularly help employees understand the value of taking control around their physical wellbeing. The fear of finding out what the niggling pain is can exacerbate the anxiety, which can manifest in increased physical illness. It takes bravery to pick up the phone to talk with a doctor, but sometimes the simple act of booking an appointment can put them back in control, which reduces the anxiety caused by doing nothing.

Removing the stigma around counselling is also vital because it’s about driving the conversations. Something counselling is often not credited for is the importance of having an impartial conversation with someone you don’t know and who doesn’t know you. It’s a major benefit of counselling. This is the difference between what a friend or family member may offer in listening or guidance – it’s not necessarily going to be the answer you want but it’s an objective, guided one.

Promoting the confidentiality of a service, removing the stigmas of a service, and importantly highlighting the fact that impartiality can sometimes be a lifesaver is essential.

Karl Bennett
Karl Bennett
Wellbeing Director at Vivup

Karl is the Wellbeing Director for Employee Benefits provider Vivup. Karl is well-known and highly respected as an expert within the Employee Assistance sector. Advising on mental health and wellbeing strategies within the public, private and charity sectors, including the BBC and Great Ormond Street Hospital. His experience as a leader at Care First for nearly two decades has seen him innovate delivery methods and technology within the sector; many of which are now seen as standard practices within the industry.