Invisible Injuries: the impact of men’s mental health on safety outcomes
Historically, workplace safety has been about reducing injuries. The definition suggests that if there are no physical injuries, then employees are considered safe and well. However, over the last 10 years, there has been a global push to redefine safety to include not only physical but mental health and wellbeing.
Training provided by industries including mining and construction have largely focused on safety behaviour. While, of course, this is extremely important, what it neglects to delve into are attitudes toward mental health. Mental health issues are not affecting individual employees in isolation, they have a flow-on effect that directly impact physical safety. As mental health issues arise, so do mistakes, injuries, absences and even fatalities.
“Often when organisations approach us, the request is to look solely at physical safety. Specifically, demonstrating to the frontline the impact of making a poor safety decision resulting in incident. Inevitably, when we explore the causal factors for high incident rates, we discover it is a combination of the workplace culture and mental health.”- Gabrielle Harris, Interchange Founder and Managing Director.
While it’s important for all employers to remain focused on mental health, it’s particularly relevant for male-dominated industries. Men in male-dominated occupations such as construction, forestry and agriculture have particularly elevated rates of suicide compared to the general employee population. Recent studies also note that men in these industries are far less likely to seek help from a mental health professional.
But what is causing such high levels of mental health issues amongst men in these occupations? And what is preventing them from seeking assistance?
Looking at the research, we can see that there is a direct correlation between industry, gender and mental health. Traditionally masculine traits such as self-reliance and stoicism have had detrimental effects on mental health. These behaviours are heavily embedded within our society, where they are positioned as fundamental components of manhood.
“All of us embody a spectrum of masculine and feminine traits that we call upon in different circumstances. However, society can condition us to rely primarily on only a small number of those traits aligned to traditional gender roles. These few traits become overdeveloped and used in most circumstances. When this occurs, particularly in the case of a reliance on hypermasculine attributes, individuals are exposed to mental and physical injury.”- Gabrielle Harris.
In male-dominated occupations, self-reliance and stoicism can be amplified even further by the workplace environment. Some men can feel averse to the idea of accepting assistance whilst performing certain tasks as they are concerned that their co-workers may perceive them as ‘weak’ or not ‘manly’ enough. This kind of behaviour and pressure to be self-reliant can lead to not only physical harm, but also mental harm.
Traditional gender roles cultivated by society do not encourage men to freely display their emotions. From a very young age, boys may become familiar with phrases such as ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘toughen up princess’. As they get older, this evolves into statements such as ‘grow a pair’ when they appear to be openly emotional or vulnerable. Male-dominated environments can often reinforce this mentality and perpetuate the stigma surrounding mental health. If men are internalising all of their thoughts, feelings and concerns, with no release, they can become distracted from the task at hand, possibly resulting in mental or physical harm to themselves or others. accidental injury to themselves or others. In male-dominated workplaces, where overdeveloped masculine traits are normalised, cultures are often observed to be competitive, authoritative and combative.
“When we’re engaged to conduct culture discovery projects in male-dominated organisations, we frequently hear comments such as “this is a toxic environment’ and “around here, we don’t talk about how we feel”. Organisations that are more willing to embrace feminine traits such as gratitude, collaboration and vulnerability are able to create environments where men’s mental health can thrive. “- Gabrielle Harris.
In order to decrease physical safety risks and improve employee wellbeing, workplaces need to adopt mental health into their definition of health and safety. At Interchange, our collective belief is that culture is the driver and safety is an outcome. If we consider the invisible injuries and the effect that overdeveloped masculine traits have on safety, we might just stand a chance at driving Australia’s incident rate towards zero.
Milner, A., Kavanagh, A., King, T., Currier (2017). ‘The Influence of Masculine Norms and Occupational Factors on Mental Health: Evidence From the Baseline of the Australian Longitudinal Study on Male Health.
Milner, A., King, T., (2018). ‘Men’s work, women’s work and suicide: a retrospective morality study in Australia.
Powell, A., Galea, N., Salignac, F., Loosemore, M., and Chappell, L. (2018) Masculinity and workplace wellbeing. UNSW: Sydney