Lee Woolcott-Ellis. Lee is a sex abuse and PTSD survivor. He got therapy and wrote a book about his childhood last year. Time to Talk about Mental Health event Herne Hill Station 8/2/19
Lee Woolcott-Ellis, a survivor of sex abuse and PTSD, is now fighting to change male attitudes to mental health © Anna Gordon/FT

Men with work-related mental health problems are far less likely than women to seek help from friends, family or colleagues. And, according to a Business in the Community report just 14 per cent disclose problems to their line manager or human resources department.

“It is saddening to see the ‘men don’t cry’ portrayal of masculinity still preventing thousands of men from talking about their distress and accessing support,” the study says. The fact that two-fifths of men sought no support from anyone during the most recent occurrence of a mental health issue indicates that there are significant improvements to be made.

How then can employers, especially those with male-dominated workforces, best approach this mental health gender gap?

Simon Blake is chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England, the main provider of workplace training. “You’ve got a cultural context against which often men don’t ask for help until they’re at crisis point,” he says. “That’s why it’s so important that Mental Health First Aid . . .  shifts that culture . . . to a place where it is seen as brave and strong to ask for help at the point at which you need it.”

Lee Woolcott-Ellis is one of the campaigners helping drive that change. A victim of 1970s child sexual abuse — chronicled in his memoir A Childhood Not Easily Forgotten — he is mental health co-ordinator at Southeastern, a train operator with an 81 per cent male workforce, where he has put his own experience to good use by developing a mental health advocacy programme.

“When you’ve been in an abusive relationship or you’ve lived with abuse you recognise it in others,” he says. Mr Woolcott-Ellis tried to pretend everything was fine during his 17 years on the railway: “Eventually it’s not OK and it all boils over. I asked for help when I got there, and, thankfully, I came out the other side, which really was the precursor to what we’re doing now.”

Underlying causes of mental ill-health are not normally as harrowing as those experienced by Mr Woolcott-Ellis. The usual culprits are the big life changes such as bereavement or divorce, but tipping points can come from everyday events at work. 

“Sometimes it can be just the silliest little thing, or it could be an assault at work or someone being particularly unpleasant and enough to push someone over the edge,” he explained. 

The point is echoed by Poppy Jaman, chief executive of the City Mental Health Alliance. “What we’ve found in the City is that people will have a whole load of stuff that’s going on in their life — and work will be the thing that just tips them over . . . Workplaces need to take a whole-life approach.”

London’s financial industry has historically been a very alpha-male environment where men in senior roles are reluctant to talk about mental health issues in case they are seen as less powerful says Ms Jaman. 

“We raise boys and men not to cry, not to show emotions. That is amplified further when you’re working in a high-pressure sector which is incredibly competitive.”

Construction is a male-dominated industry whose mental health statistics make grim reading: The risk of suicide among labourers is three times higher than the national average; work-related stress, depression and anxiety are estimated to cost building companies £178m a year. 

“We’re renowned as tough guys,” says Martin Coyd, a volunteer with Building Mental Health, a construction industry initiative and the head of health, safety and wellbeing at Mace Construction, one of the UK’s biggest building firms. “We don’t talk about things that are perceived as weakness. What’s recognised now is those that do, actually have huge courage.” 

Shaun Davis is global director of safety, health, wellbeing and sustainability at Royal Mail — another mainly male environment — and author of Positive Male Mind. “We’re not expecting our managers to be clinicians and ‘fix’ their people, because that’s not what their role is. Their role is to help, support and signpost,” he explains. Peer-to-peer networks are also vital, he says. 

A common thread for these mental health advocates is the importance of the line manager as a first port of call for distressed staff. The problem, says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, is that too often, managers get their jobs because of their technical abilities rather than people skills. Companies should instead “recruit the ones that have good emotional intelligence”, he argues. 

“Public health interventions which aim to change the resilience and mental fitness of a group only work if the organisation’s managers are signed up,” says Professor Neil Greenberg, Royal College of Psychiatrists Chair for Occupational Psychiatry.

The economic argument for addressing mental ill-health in the workplace is compelling. Thriving at Work, a 2017 report for the UK government, put the costs to the economy of poor mental health as high as £99bn a year.

Is the tide turning? Ms Jaman certainly thinks so: “In the last six years I have seen more men in the City come out and talk about their mental health experience than ever before”.

The feeling is echoed by Mr Woolcott-Ellis: “There is now a movement of openness and we are seeing people come forward. It’s definitely changing, there’s no doubt about that.”   

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