November is an important month for men’s health. You may have spotted a few of the guys in your life growing some extra facial hair to raise funds and promote Movember, and today is International Men’s Day. Both of these projects set out to raise awareness of men’s health issues.
When it comes to gender, there are a fair few conversations going on about the gaps between men and women, especially in the workplace and in the home. But how often do we consider the gender gap when it comes to matters of health?
It’s quite likely if you asked a guy who he considers the stronger sex to be, his answer would be men, arguing that males are typically bigger and more muscular. Yet when we approach this question from a medical perspective, the longevity gap puts women ahead. Life expectancy for women in the UK is currently 82.9 years and for men it is 79 years.
So why doesn’t the average man live as long as the average woman?
Biological, social and behavioural factors have all been studied. From a biological perspective, whilst the difference in chromosomes, genetics and hormones all create risk factors for men’s health, women equally have a long list of risk factors too. This means biology doesn’t explain the gap sufficiently.
From a social perspective, let’s use stress as an example. We know long-term stress can have a huge impact on health and wellbeing. It can lead to a wide range of chronic illnesses and ailments, both mentally and physically. Of course, neither sex is immune to the detrimental impact of stress but when it comes to the power of relationships and social connectivity, women tend to lean in and embrace the support of others. Men on the other hand, are more likely to seek solitude and keep their worries to themselves. This is likely to be a key factor contributing towards the longevity gap especially if you consider at what point men reach out and seek medical help if there is a problem. Women tend to speak to a doctor when they first experience signs and symptoms of illness. Men on the other hand tend to put off speaking to a doctor. Any delay in a diagnosis can negatively impact prognosis when it comes to life threatening diseases.
From adolescence, male behaviour becomes the prevailing factor impacting illness and lower life expectancy in men. Compared to women, guys are more likely to take risks, generally eat less healthy diets, and visit the doctor less frequently. Whilst there is less of a divide between the genders these days in relation to smoking, drinking, substance abuse and lack of adequate exercise, these are all behaviours that impact chronic disease, mentally and physically.
So what needs to be done to close the longevity gap?
Education is of course important but some might argue there is already ample information out there about leading a balanced and healthy lifestyle. So is the message actually getting through?
Could relaying the message through key figures and role models be part of the solution?
One area we’ve seen great progress on is from celebrities and sports professionals who are more frequently sharing their personal journeys, encouraging other men to prioritise health and wellbeing and to start talking and sharing.
But what about role models for our day-to-day and working lives? Which leaders (in particular men) are speaking openly and championing health and wellbeing?
Furthermore, how often are we creating the opportunity, in and out of work, to talk more openly about men’s health? In reality, is it truly acceptable for guys to share their feelings and emotions or is there an unconscious bias that tells us to view that as weakness?
If you’re in any doubt about how much of a big deal this is, let’s review some of the rather startling facts about the longevity gap when it comes to suicide:
- Three times as many men die from suicide than women.
- Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 years.
- The highest suicide rate is for men aged between 45 and 49 in the UK.
In reality, whilst the stigma around mental-ill health has eased substantially over the past few years, we have a mental health crisis on our hands. We know men are far less likely to access psychological therapies and around one in eight men in England are suffering from a common mental health problem and that’s not counting all the undiagnosed cases, (remember those guys who don’t feel comfortable going to the doctor?). So has the stigma shifted enough when it comes to male gender?
If men continue to feel under pressure to “be strong, show no signs of weakness” we have to a) recognise the detrimental impact this pressure has, b) consider where this pressure comes from and c) consider what each of us can do to create a shift?
Whilst workplace wellbeing has come a long way in recent years, I think on a strategic and cultural level, we still have a long way to go. For a start, we need to be finding more effective ways of linking equality, diversity and inclusion with wellbeing.
To the guys reading this, please be leaders and role models whenever you can. Please help each other to start talking by taking the first step. Be OK with another guy expressing his emotions (even if it feels awkward). Start reaching out for help.
To the gals reading this, remember just because the touchy-feely stuff comes a lot more naturally to you, it doesn’t mean men don’t want it too. Recognise your biases and find ways to reinvent the wheel.
This International Men’s Day is all about coming together to create better ways to support men because we all get to benefit. So let’s avoid a “them and us” approach and get the conversations started inclusively, both in and out of work.
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Kate Flowerdew is a workplace coaching and wellbeing specialist who works with busy professionals and people-focused organisations to help them put strategies and tools in place that cultivate sustainable health, happiness and wellbeing. Kate is the creator of The Ultimate Self-Care Tool Kit, an online membership with coaching support for busy professionals who are choosing to ditch stress and burnout and transform the way they live and work to create optimum balance in all areas of life. She provides program and packages to SMEs that address workplace wellbeing at the employee, team, leadership and organisational level ensuring it becomes embedded in strategy and culture as opposed to a box ticking initiative.
To discover how Kate can support you / your organisation, you can find her at: