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Gender Communication Gap?

Is talking about mental health harder for men?

Let’s put that in context: not all talking, and not all men, but the kind of difficult conversations that need to be had by managers about certain aspects of wellbeing, notably work-related mental ill-health.

I’m concerned about this for several reasons. The most obvious being that dealing effectively with mental health issues – be they related to stress, depression or anxiety – starts with a conversation. Almost always. That makes talking about it critically important. And with 81% of senior business roles in the UK being held men I wonder if a “communication gender gap” could be the elephant in the room?

81% of Senior Business roles are held by men

Next in the worry stakes is that statistics from the Health & Safety Executive show that over a three-year period from 2014 to 2017, the average prevalence rate for work related stress, depression or anxiety for males was 1,170 cases per 100,000 workers. Against 1,880 cases for women. What does that signify? That this statistically higher rate for women means they get depressed more? Endure anxiety more? That men don’t suffer with it as much?

Or could it be that they women are more likely to seek help? You know where I’m going with this – they talk about it more (or perhaps more readily or easily).

Maybe that’s true, but even here caution is advised…

According to the World Health Organisationa gender bias exists- even within the medical profession.

Doctors are more likely to diagnose depression in women compared with men, even when they have similar scores on standardised measures of depression or present with identical symptoms.

There is evidence to say that men and women are affected differently by common mental disorders, and coping strategies are certainly different. 

Again, the WHO (World Health Organisation…not the band, keep up):

Men are also more than three times more likely to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder than women…

…and are more than twice as likely to become alcohol dependant.

And why might we believe that this apparent male reluctance/squirming discomfort/ ‘difficulty’ to talk has some basis in fact? Well, there is of course what I see as the most disturbing statistic of all:

Around three quarters of all suicides in the UK are men. It is the biggest killer of men aged between 20 and 49 years old.

Around three quarters of all suicides in the UK are Male. ONS

Not heart attacks, motorcycle accidents or extreme sports. It’s hard evidence that mental ill-health is a huge issue among males, and certainly supports the notion that they tend to talk about it less.

Men (generally) seem to find it harder to talk about their mental health issues.

This is not the first time I have visited this subject.  In a previous blog entitled Depression: Don’t “Man Up” I wrote…

“For a lot of men, talking or opening up about their feelings or what’s going on in their heads is a bridge too far. All that sharing emotions and talking, holding hands and singing around a camp fire – no thank you, I would rather handle this myself! What’s the worst that can happen? Suicide. That’s what.”

I finished that blog by asking how we get men to open up without fear of ridicule or negative consequences. My short answer was One conversation at a time, I suppose.” I’ve not changed my view, but I think we could do a lot more to help them (us) out!

I think it’s clear that far too many of “those” conversations about an employee’s mental health in the workplace are simply not happening, despite over a third of HR professionals in one recent survey citing wellbeing and mental health as their top concern for the coming year.

These are the people in the business who are there to look after the people in the business. They know that this is a massive issue bubbling away just beneath the surface.

So, what to do…what to do?

The CIPD (the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) propose:

“managers need to be trained so that they feel confident and competent to have conversations with staff about their mental health and signpost to specialist sources of support if necessary.” 


There are other findings that highlight the value of mental health training for managers in language that many businesses will understand – financial. A government source advocates Manager Mental Health Training by saying that it could lead to a significant reduction in work related sickness absence. It goes on to claim that its own studies show “an associated return on investment of £9.98 for each £1 spent on such training.”

Okay, let’s round that up by 2p and call it a tenner. And now let’s ponder a ten-to-one return on that quid. I challenge you to find other resources that could deliver that level of payback!

Let’s sum this all up then…

Bottom line: Looking after wellbeing in the workplace affects the bottom line, and it is arguably the first line supervisor who has the most impact on that wellbeing. A finger on the pulse so to speak.

But if men find it so hard to talk about this stuff, and most managers are men… where does that leave employees- whatever their gender, accent or size? If Larry has always been a closed book staying out of peoples business, why do we assume that will change when he gets promoted?

Organisations can splash the “We care” mission statement far and wide- but the people who matter, those on the ground, are the ones who really know. You have to ask…“Are they really ‘investing’ in people?”  It will only ever be paragraph on an intranet page if people don’t know how to have those conversations through discomfort, fear or ignorance.

We need to equip our managers, male or female with the knowledge and skills to actually make a difference and make those impressive “core beliefs of the business” a reality.

National Conversation Week starts 5th March 2018. Look out for our top tips on having those difficult conversations in the workplace, in handy downloadable PDF format. Oh, and it’s free.