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Invisible injuries: The impact of men’s mental health on safety outcomes

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When we talk about health and safety at work, what are the first things we think of? Campaigns to reduce injuries and fatalities? Safety warnings plastered around the workplace? Near miss reports?

Historically, workplace safety has been all about the physical. Making sure that we have put all of the measures in place to prevent physical harm.

If we are following this train of thought, then the absence of physical injuries means that employees are safe and well, right? Well, not necessarily.

Over the past 10 years or so, there has been a global push to redefine workplace health and safety to include not only physical health, but mental health and wellbeing too.

 

Gender, industry and mental health

Despite the efforts to redefine workplace health and safety (H&S), our organisations tend to base their H&S training solely around the physical risks of the job.

Now, of course, this type of training is important, however, what a lot of people don’t understand is just how much of an impact mental health (and attitudes towards mental health) are having on our workforce – particularly on men working within male-dominated industries.

 

“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 an incident. Inevitably, when we explore the causal factors for high incident rates, we discover that it is more often than not, a combination of the workplace culture and mental health issues.”

Gabrielle Harris, Interchange Founder and Managing Director.

 

According to recent studies conducted by Alison Milner, Anne Kavanagh, Tania King and Dianne Currier, men within male-dominated occupations such as construction, forestry and agriculture have particularly elevated suicide rates compared to the rest of the employee population. There is a very clear correlation between industry, gender and mental health.

Research also concludes that men within heavily male-dominated industries are far less likely to seek help from a mental health professional.

 

 

Wow – that is a rather large cause for concern isn’t it. What is it about these male-dominated environments that is contributing to poorer mental health outcomes? What are the barriers to them seeking help?

Well, when you have a male-dominated workplace, typically, you will see an abundance of what would be considered ‘traditionally masculine traits’. Traits that are deeply embedded within our society and are deemed ‘part of being a man’. See how I’ve used inverted commas there? We’ll talk more about that a bit later.

These traits include things like self-reliance and stoicism – which have shown to have detrimental effects on mental health.

In male-dominated occupations, it is not uncommon for these characteristics to be amplified beyond how they manifest in general society. For example, on a worksite, Andrew may avoid asking for help with a certain task, even though he knows it’s a bit out of his realm. He doesn’t want to appear ‘weak’ or ‘girly’ in front of his co-workers – he would never hear the end of it! So, he continues on, struggling with the two-man job by himself, all to avoid the ‘jovial’ scrutiny.

 

Sillhouette of worksite

 

This is a similar feeling for Jamaal. Last night, he and his fiancé ended their 5-year relationship and he is now living out of a suitcase at a friend’s place. He was afraid to open up and talk about what was happening in his life because ‘that’s just not what men do’, so, he decides to come to work, despite his mental anguish. All day, he pretends that nothing is wrong and tries to block the event from his mind. However, his negative thoughts keep surging back, distracting him from what he’s doing.

This kind of behaviour and pressure to be self-reliant can lead to… well… trouble.

If men (particularly those in male-dominated industries) are feeling the need to be self-reliant or to internalise their thoughts, feelings and concerns, they could become a ticking time bomb. One that could result in mental or physical harm to themselves or others.

 

‘It’s a guy thing’… but does it have to be?

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, these statements don’t disappear when a man becomes openly emotional or vulnerable. No. They simply evolve into something like ‘grow a pair’ or ‘has your missus got your manhood in her handbag?’.

 

 

It’s so very unfortunate that traditional gender stereotypes have never encouraged men to express their emotions or sensitivities. Those types of traits were labelled feminine, meaning that they had no place within strong men. Well, I’m here to tell you that this is simply untrue and it’s actually really damaging.

Although, yes, character traits have been put into boxes labelled ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, it doesn’t mean that they belong exclusively to a specific gender. They are all just traits at the end of the day.

 

“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, Interchange Founder and Managing Director.

 

If you are a woman who possesses some ‘masculine’ characteristics, such as competitiveness or assertiveness, does that suddenly take away your right to identify as a woman? No. You’re still a woman. The same goes for men too.

In fact, there are some very positive traits on both ends of the spectrum, all of which we possess and yet we just left some of them underdeveloped due to societal expectations. If we began to break out of our very rigid, stuffy stereotypes and look to develop traits that aren’t necessarily associated with our gender, then we could all become very well-rounded people. In this case, it will actually save lives.

 

Emphasis on mental health in H&S

Given that these typically ‘masculine’ traits and attitudes have the potential to contribute to poorer physical and mental health outcomes, it is absolutely essential that we design our workplace training programs with an increased focus on this area. It’s a no brainer really.

To drive down the suicide and workplace injury rates within Australia, it’s time that we start to shift our mindset toward health and safety. Health and safety isn’t just about physical health, it needs to be about mental health and wellbeing too.

 

“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, Interchange Founder and Managing Director.

 

References

Milner, A. and King, T. (2019). Men’s work, women’s work and suicide: A retrospective mortality study in Australia. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 43(1), 27-32. doi:10.1111/1753-6405.12859

Milner, A., Kavanagh, A., King, T., & Currier, D. (2018). The influence of masculine norms and occupational factors on mental health: Evidence from the baseline of the Australian longitudinal study on male health. American Journal of Men’s Health, 12(4), 696–705. doi.org/10.1177/1557988317752607

Powell, A., Galea, N., Salignac, F., Loosemore, M., & Chappell, L. (2018). Masculinity and workplace wellbeing in the Australian construction industry. In Proceeding of the 34th Annual ARCOM Conference. Belfast, UK (pp. 321-30).

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