Encouraging men to open up about their health

19 April 2021

Supporting the health needs of men

It is well known that men can often be something of a hard-to-reach audience when it comes to encouraging conversations around health and wellbeing. Yet, while the past year has taken a toll on all of us, men's health has been a particular concern during the pandemic and is something many health professionals are growing increasingly worried about.

First, there is simply the fact that more men have died from Covid-19 than women. Second, and if anything of greater concern, there are the potentially long-term indirect physical and mental health impacts of Covid-19.

Take cancer, for example. There are growing worries about the effect of the pandemic in terms of reduced diagnoses, referrals and treatment rates across the board, with warnings around tumbling lung cancer referrals, reductions in the numbers starting cancer treatment, and sharp declines in prostate cancer and bowel cancer referrals. Lung, prostate and bowel cancer don't of course just affect men, but the fact they tend to be more common among men is ringing alarm bells in the context of men's health.

Equally, the effect of the pandemic on the mental health of many men, especially young men, is a growing worry, with the Mental Health Foundation, for one, suggesting that as many as one in eight men are struggling with their mental health at any one time.

Gender stereotypes and societal expectations

The foundation makes the important point that gender stereotypes and societal expectations mean men can be less likely to talk about their health, be less prepared to speak openly about their emotions or recognise when they may need help. Men can be more likely, too, to resort to potentially harmful coping strategies, such as excessive drinking, drugs or smoking.

This is where male health-related awareness-raising events can be helpful. Probably the most high-profile of these is 'Movember' in November, but there are many others throughout the year. April is a particularly busy month in this respect, with it being both Testicular Cancer Awareness Month and Bowel Cancer Awareness Month.

What this all means is there are calendar markers throughout the year that may be useful as a springboard for male-centred health promotional activity. Employers can sign up and signpost their teams to the various awareness-raising and fundraising activities but, equally, these are a good place for employees themselves to engage with and reflect on these issues. Many of them also offer toolkits and practical resources.

Useful self-help

Especially with cancer, early diagnosis, treatment and intervention is critical. Therefore, the sorts of messages that are important here include knowing what to look for in terms of common cancers and encouraging people to get into the habit of checking their body (perhaps when in the shower). Highlighting 'red flags', such as unusual lumps or persistent pains, changes in weight or bowel activity can also be valuable.

This was a key message of the NHS' celebrity-led advertising campaign last autumn to remind people that the NHS was still open for cancer care, despite the pandemic, and not to put off getting potential symptoms checked out.

Bear in mind too, however, there may be resources that you can access through your employer. This could include fast-track access to medical, healthcare or occupational health support, both for you and your family. Knowing this wider support is available can be an important tool in overcoming the 'I don't want to worry the NHS at this time' barrier that has played such a part with tumbling cancer diagnoses throughout the pandemic.

Equally, there may be bolt-on benefits that come as standard within your employer's group risk policy but which you may not be fully aware of. These can include access to an employee assistance programme, children's cover, cancer cover, second medical opinion, early intervention or rehabilitation services, for example. So, ask the question, probably of your HR or benefits team.

Reaching hard-to-get men

Of course, the above is all well and good if men are engaged and receptive to health and wellbeing messages and health promotion in the first place. Given that you're reading this, the probability is you fall into that category (and well done, if so). But what if the men around you have their heads in the sand?

One 'way in' to talking about men's health is through the use of humour, as a recent article highlighted, albeit for an Irish audience. Peer communication may also be valuable in this context – so working with male colleagues or workplace 'champions' who can, as it were, 'tell it as it is'.

Equally, and counter-intuitively, targeting partners can be effective when approaching male-specific health promotion. A recent academic study, although on diet and weight management, illustrates how men can be receptive to health messages that come from their partners, and how the active involvement of partners can encourage behaviour change.

If you're leading on this within your workplace, it is also important to be thinking about what communication channels may work best, and again for male workers of differing ages. Posters, leaflets and physical education can have their place but, especially now, digital channels, videos and social media may be invaluable.

Ultimately, the key here is not to assume a one-size-fits-all approach will work. Supporting and communicating about male health and running male-specific health promotional activity can be complex and rarely will you be able to step back and say, 'job done'.

Yet, at the same time, the fact it is difficult and men can be reluctant to open up about their health or seek help makes it even more imperative that employees and employers work together to play their part

About the author

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.