Suicide remains the biggest cause of death for Canadian men under the age of 44, but new research by the Movember Foundation found that men still struggle to talk about mental health — especially in the workplace.
Researchers at Ipsos MORI surveyed 1,000 Canadian men between the ages of 18 and 75, and the results are astounding.
Twenty-eight per cent of Canadian men said they believed their job could be at risk if they discuss mental health issues at work, and more than 33 per cent of men worry they could be overlooked for a promotion if they mention a problem.
As well, 42 per cent of men surveyed said they are also worried about colleagues making negative comments behind their backs.
For men like Peter, these results are completely unsurprising. (Global News has agreed to use a pseudonym to protect his identity.)
The 29-year-old marketing manager struggles with anxiety and panic attacks. “I’ve dealt with anxiety and panic my entire life, but I only began to acknowledge and treat it when I was 26,” he told Global News.
WATCH (Sept. 5, 2019): Prioritizing mental health as students head back to school
Earlier this year, Peter started a new job — a change that made his anxiety difficult to control.
“Starting a new job is one of the most stressful things you can do,” he said.
“What was supposed to be a career-shifting move turned into a never-ending episode of panic, stress, worry and fear.”
Peter lived with this intense anxiety about his career and his job for three months, and the whole time, he felt like he was “walking on eggshells.”
The workplace culture didn’t help. According to Peter, it was “fear-based with top-down leadership.”
“The primary motivator was fear of losing your job. Because this leadership style came from the top down, it wasn’t a collaborative environment. It was every person for themselves,” he said.
Peter felt like he was stuck in a vicious cycle with no one to talk to about his mental health.
WATCH (Sept. 9, 2019): Suicide kills one person every 40 seconds, says World Health Organization
“(I felt that) if I said the wrong thing, I would lose my job and never be able to find a new one, and not be able to pay rent, and never be able to afford a down-payment on a house and I would spend the rest of my life on my parents’ couch,” he said.
“I’m a very healthy individual. I run marathons, eat vegan and meditate daily… but when employers are the cause of stress, anxiety, fear and uncertainty, short of leaving your job, I don’t think there’s much you can do.”
Ultimately, a particularly bad week forced Peter to confront his illness and see a doctor. At that point, he thought it would be appropriate to make his employer aware of his mental health — and ask for some leniency as he underwent treatment.
“All I needed was their support, understanding and patience,” Peter said, but that’s not what he was given.
“Things went on as normal. In fact, it was reiterated to me that I was in a performance-driven position and no accommodations could be made,” he said. “If I had broken my foot, accommodations would’ve been made. If I had pneumonia, accommodations would’ve been made.”
Four weeks later, Peter was terminated. His employer cited “performance issues,” and during his exit interview, he was made to feel ashamed about his illness. “They alluded to me lying about the illness to (explain my) poor performance,” Peter said.
The misconception that men aren’t affected by mental illness
Peter firmly believes that there is a lasting stigma around men who have a mental illness.
“We’ve come a long way with the stigma around mental health, but we clearly have so much further to go,” he said.
Movember spokesperson Alexandra Wise lost her father to suicide just three weeks after her mother died from ovarian cancer. In her opinion, stigma played a huge role in his battle with mental illness.
WATCH (Aug. 28, 2019): Back to school — UBC president’s personal mental health struggle
“He struggled with his mental health for most of my childhood, and as I got older, his mental health seemed to decline and things got worse,” she said.
“It was something that my family and I really didn’t understand. We didn’t understand the extent of what he was dealing with, and we weren’t really sure how to help him.”
Wise said her father lost his job when she was just a baby, and that the loss really affected him.
“He didn’t have any social connections and spent a lot of time inside the house, alone. He isolated himself more and more,” she said.
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At first, Wise struggled to understand why he would do such a thing. “It was really difficult to understand why he would do that,” she said. “My mom had no choice. My dad seemingly had the choice to live, or that’s what I thought.”
Since then, Wise has made an effort to learn more about mental health. Now she knows that her father didn’t feel like he had a choice.
“I think, really, in his mind, he felt like that was the only solution to end his pain and his suffering,” she said.
Employers need to do more
The workplace is commonly regarded as a space crucial to forming one’s identity. “It creates purpose,” said Dr. Ashley Bender, occupational psychiatrist and professor at the University of Toronto.
“Anything that is a potential threat to the loss of work or… their work status is something that could contribute to (someone) not coming forward with mental health issues.”
According to Bender, silence is seen as “the safe route” even though it puts people at risk by leaving their illness untreated.
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This pressure could be compounded by the stereotype that men should always be working and that they shouldn’t talk about their feelings.
“Traditionally, a man’s role has been centered around employment and being productive and having work as a core source of their life and purpose,” said Bender.
To better support men with mental illness, Bender has three recommendations for workplaces.
“One of the ways is to launch anti-stigma campaigns… to impart knowledge and change attitudes about mental health,” he said. “This is really quite impactful, but it’s work that has to be done continuously.”
Manager training is also a big component so that “when it’s time to have those critical conversations, the individual who’s coming forward doesn’t feel stigmatized,” said Bender.
Finally, confidentiality is key. “Is there a workplace culture that respects confidentiality, particularly around (mental health issues)?” Bender said.
Ultimately, actions need to follow words.
“Attempts to change attitudes by creating awareness but then providing inadequate resources (like low coverage for psychological treatments) says, ‘We’re acknowledging that we have a problem, but we don’t care.’ That drives people into silence, because what’s the point?”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.