It was International Men’s Day in November. I ignored it, as I expect did many others.
A female colleague responded with a snort that ‘everyday was men’s day’ – I suspect this is symptomatic of a trend that has arisen in recent years, that of dismissing, marginalising and ridiculing the male species.
But what impact could it be having, and what can you do about it as a leader?
Males in popular culture
It seems to me that our (very necessary) quest for equality and gender balance, coupled with the growing recognition by marketers of female spending power and purchasing influence, has had the consequence of men being portrayed in TV, advertising and popular culture as useless, feckless and incompetent figures of fun, subservient to powerful and capable female figures.
If you haven’t noticed, try watching the adverts on TV for a few nights and see how many times the male is portrayed as a joke or a waste of space.
I’m a well-adjusted man in his late 50s, and have learned who and what I am, for good and bad, so I just find it irritating. But I wonder how it influences the way younger men see themselves, or how it shapes female attitudes to men.
I’m not suggesting that men haven’t done plenty to deserve a bit of ridicule over the decades, nor am I minimising the considerable need to create a better gender balance and more diverse and representative societies – including within our management cohort. Indeed, I’ve spoken in support of this in several previous articles.
However, a recent statistic caught me rather unawares and made me consider the consequences of the situation from a different angle.
Male suicide rates
In the UK and Ireland, research shows us that suicide is the single largest cause of death among men aged 20 – 49, and that the male suicide rate is more than three times higher than the female rate. And for men between the ages of 45 and 59, 2013 saw the highest rate of suicides since records began in 1981.
This is much more than a statistical anomaly. Clearly there are root causes and influencing factors. Most of us will at some point have been touched by this to some degree. For myself, I’ve seen male friends and colleagues, and even family members, consider or attempt suicide. A few have succeeded, if you can call it success.
The obvious question is: why? What is it that is making relatively young men decide to take their own lives? Why is it so much more prevalent in men than women? How is it linked with the general portrayal and perception of men in society?
It’s a challenging and complex issue. Each situation will clearly be different, and there will always be a complicated web of influences.
I’m undoubtedly going to face accusations of gender bias here. Let’s cut to the chase then. Everyone is biased, and will have prejudices and views that are shaped by their upbringing and cultural norms.
That’s true, of course, for any of us. If you’re a woman reading this article, observe your own reaction to the following statistic: 76% of all suicides are men, while only 24% are women.
What was your immediate reaction or thought when you read that? Did you think “Oh that’s so sad, I wonder why?” or did you think “That’s because women are stronger/better/too busy”?… I suspect (and if a ‘straw poll’ of female colleagues and friends is any indicator) that there will be a high proportion in the latter camp. I wonder what bearing these kinds of prejudices might have, and what this tells us about the situation.
There are a number of assumptions about male suicide, some of which are holding us back in dealing with the underlying issues, and may even be a contributory factor.
|Men who commit suicide are weak or ‘soft’||Data indicates that men from stereotypically strong and masculine backgrounds (in terms of job type, social group, and family background) are far more likely to consider suicide than those from more middle-class groups|
|Suicide is very rare in today’s society||The NHS ‘Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey of 2014 indicated that at many as 20% of adults experience serious suicidal thoughts – and recent data demonstrates a significant increase in male suicides since the beginning of this century|
|Most suicide attempts are a cry for help that went wrong||Data indicates that men tend to favour more violent and ‘certain’ methods such as hanging or firearms, and are therefore typically likely to be successful|
|Men who commit suicide are mentally ill or unstable||While suicide is clearly a desperate act, relatively few suicides have a history of mental health problems or have been receiving medical treatment|
Conclusions from the Samaritans’ research include:
1. Men tend to be more emotionally reliant on their partners than their female counterparts
2. After the end of a long-term relationship, men are more likely to contemplate suicide than their former partners
3. Women are far more likely to respond by seeking emotional support from friends, family or professional services
4. Men typically respond to emotional distress, trauma or crises with high-risk behaviours such as driving too fast, fighting, drink, drugs and gambling
5. 16 men in every 100,000 commit suicide, while only 4.9 women do.
Men and work
Perhaps it’s time to consider how society and work has changed in recent decades, and how that might be influencing the trend. To what extent are changing leadership focuses, lean organisations, and ever-growing pressure on results leaving men feeling increasingly disenfranchised?
We are all aware of the prevalence of factors like poor work-life balance, increasing stress, loss of well-being, and rising pressure and targets in today’s working world. There’s also the ongoing cost and headcount reductions that lead to increasing workload and a constant round of organisational restructuring, plus the ‘always-on’ culture of technology, and the career uncertainty caused by economic upheaval.
Add to this the personal challenges of fragmented relationships, and the loss of clear paths for members of society to follow based on their background, and its perhaps no surprise that more and more people are feeling lost and marginalised.
But why is it so much worse for men than women? I have no scientific data here, only observations. My take on it is that:
Putting work into context: women seem far more adept at positioning work appropriately within the complex web of responsibilities they juggle. Men are often so focused on work that they lose perspective and a sense of their worth outside work. Take away the job, or even make it insecure, and what’s left?
Using support networks: women are often very effective at social networking, supporting each other as friends, colleagues and family. Men are often inept at this, with few real friends and often a fairly superficial relationship even with those.
Self-perception: centuries of conditioning and constant stereotyping, aligned with natural tendencies, has taught men to view themselves as providers. This role has been removed or reduced for many of them, and they haven’t all worked out what to do about it. Some see themselves as no longer needed, and are left feeling pointless.
Power play: the male view of work is often, however subliminally, about power. Men – especially those who rise to management positions – often view many relationships from an adversarial perspective, seeing colleagues as rivals rather than allies. If they do well at work, they are ‘winning’ – if they don’t, or worse still, if they lose their job, then they are most definitely ‘losing’.
I know these seem like stereotypical assumptions, and they are. However, the word ‘stereotypical’ contains the word ‘typical’ for a reason, so it would be unwise to dismiss the possibility that they might be true.
So what does a leader need to do or think about here?
As a leader, male or female, you have a responsibility not just for output and performance, but for the team’s sustainability, atmosphere, motivation and morale. It is absolutely essential that you are sensitive to how people are feeling, and to spot any signs that someone isn’t coping. Building strong personal relationships with colleagues enables you to have deeper conversations and makes it more likely they will ‘open up’.
Many (too many) leaders seem, however, to view people as just organic versions of machinery, assuming that they can keep demanding more and driving them with targets and incentives to squeeze every last drop of performance out of them. After all, there’s plenty more out there if they break, surely?
Actually, no. Research by Oxford Economics and other reports show the basic cost of recruiting is more than £5,000 per post, but that the ‘real’ cost is more like £30k by the time you factor in the loss of capability during the period that the post is vacant, and then while the new recruit is getting ‘up-to-speed’.
Those with a high level of emotional intelligence will probably already be aware of this challenge, and of their impact as leaders on the wellbeing of their people. They will recognise the need of the situation and want to support and coach those people, while still seeking high-performance and achievement.
Those who are more output and process driven (who often think such considerations are ‘soft’ or ‘weak’) may need to think rather deeply about the costs of losing a team member.
It simply makes no sense to attempt to demand higher and higher output (often through arbitrarily-identified targets) when the financial gains are likely to be more than offset by the cost of replacing burned-out colleagues, and the strain placed on those that remain and attempt to take up the slack.
Experience shows that it is typically your best people who will leave when they feel they are being exploited and taken advantage of by a constantly increasing workload.
The suicide statistics indicate that something is broken for males in the UK. More than three times as many male suicides than female is a stark statistic that has been a growing trend for some time, and shows that we need to take the issues of mental health, especially among men, more seriously.
As leaders, whatever our gender, we need to consider how we impact on our colleagues’ wellbeing and mental health, and what we can do to enable them to remain important members of our teams and society.
You can develop your ability to build high performing teams through a supportive, emotionally intelligent approach by joining one of our leadership and management mentoring programmes.