Since the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Issues Affecting Men and Boys was created nearly two years ago, a key area that its members wanted to focus on was improving men’s health and reducing male suicide.
We need employers to do more to understand and tackle male suicide
This includes identifying the causes and exploring solutions. These solutions are not limited to political actions, but also include ways that society, employers and men can make improvements.
It is important to recognise that improving men’s health can benefit not just men, but society and the economy as a whole. Furthermore, the wellbeing of men and women are interconnected; the health of men can positively impact the lives of women and vice versa, since men and women often share communities, families and workplaces. It is not a zero-sum game. Helping men and boys also does not negate the support we need for women and girls.
However, since becoming an MP in 2019 and raising this issue, everyone I’ve spoken to agrees with the need for a men’s health strategy but we do not seem to get anywhere with the government. I find it difficult to understand why we rightly have a women’s health strategy, but the government continues to dig its heels in with respect to not creating a men’s health strategy. The latter is a key recommendation from the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Issues Affecting Men and Boys and also from a wide range of health professionals and organisations across the UK. There is no evidence-based explanation for not having such a strategy.
Stark figures for male suicide
The figures for men’s health and male suicide are stark. In the UK, 13 men die every day due to suicide (75 per cent of the total) as do 33 from prostate cancer and 88 from heart disease. With respect to suicide itself, there are clear variations. The male suicide rate in the North East is nearly twice as high as that in London; the suicide rate for men working in the construction industry, driving and the ‘trades’ is far higher than the male average; and also suicide affects more middle-aged men than any other age group.
Underlying causes of male suicide need to be addressed
For its inquiry on male suicide, the APPG brought together leading international and national experts both from the world of academia and those charities working on the frontline. Their analysis was clear: we can only tackle male suicide by understanding and addressing the deep underlying causes rather than trying to just address the outcomes.
They also raised the very important point that the focus has been on viewing male suicide primarily as a clinical/mental health problem when it is largely a response to a range of external issues, or personal stressors, that take many down the path to suicide. In the minds of many men, they have tried to resolve these issues and it is their failure to do so that starts this terrible journey.
These stressors range from relationship breakdown (including divorce, child contact or domestic abuse), employment (including redundancy/unemployment), workplace culture (including bullying), financial problems and bereavement. These also sit alongside wider issues such as isolation, addictions and adverse childhood experiences. Life transitions add risk too, especially where unexpected, such as the sudden loss of work or a troubled divorce.
The APPG also heard clearly that men do talk if the environment is right, where there will not be real or imagined consequences, including in a work setting and also if it is on men’s own terms. Testimony to this is the huge growth recently of Andy’s Man Clubs, Men’s Sheds and other groups such as talk clubs, walking groups and even pie clubs.
Employers can certainly support mental wellbeing and reduce the risk of male suicide by engaging with organisations such as Mates in Mind, the Men’s Health Forum and others. They should become well-connected and able to refer employees to local mental health organisations, the local health service and charities. The government’s revised suicide prevention strategy, to be released in the future, will also be a valuable resource.
However, there is more that employers can do, especially given that male suicide is not viewed by men themselves as a clinical condition but one based on external factors weighing upon them. Firstly, ensuring the workplace culture is mentally healthy is crucial and that men (and women, of course) feel comfortable in disclosing significant problems they are facing either within work or externally. Importantly, this includes being an employer that does not have a bullying or ‘man up’ culture as not only will this cause problems in itself but also will exacerbate the other problems that men are facing. Work may actually be solace to them if they are going through difficult issues elsewhere.
Secondly, it is important for work colleagues with safeguarding, wellbeing, HR and managerial responsibilities to better understand the external stressors that can take men down this path. This is vital in not only understanding the signs where there are not disclosures but also how to listen and act when there are. We cannot keep asking men to ‘speak up’ if we are not prepared or ready to listen when they do.
From a wider perspective, employers are focusing on equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) matters. Reducing male suicide and improving male mental health for employees, customers and service-users is clearly an EDI issue, even more so where the majority of these audiences are male. If those working in these EDI roles do not recognise this is a part of their work, then I am not sure they are doing their jobs properly.
Lastly, internal communications should encourage men to talk to their peers or those with safeguarding roles. Information on posters, at meetings and on intranets is important, including messaging around confidentiality and the lack of consequences. Many men fear being judged as being weak or that if they disclose, it will affect their job security. One communication expert the APPG works with believes many men will find information on intranets about a range of external organisations they can contact and will then do so, without telling anyone at work. That should still be counted internally as a success.
Building on the above, using specific annual campaigns such as Mental Health Awareness Week (15–21 May 2023), Men’s Health Week (12–18 June) and/or International Men’s Day (19 November) for internal campaigns has proven to be a real success. I would encourage these campaigns to be used as a focus.
Research needed into why some occupations have higher male suicide rates
One last point is for the wider safety industry (including the Health and Safety Executive) and for particular industries. Male suicide is still a very poorly researched and analysed area with respect to why some occupations have higher male suicide rates than others. There is an urgent need to find out why this is the case and what the male-friendly solutions should be. If we do not know enough about why, then we cannot adequately address it at a sector level.
A recent academic paper on male suicide in the construction industry stated: “Evidence for the effectiveness of organisational-level workplace mental health interventions in construction workers is limited with opportunities for methodological and conceptual improvement.” This is a stark message and the workplace safety industry and related employers should urgently come together in partnership to commission research into why some occupations have higher male suicide rates and the most effective workplace-based interventions for preventing male suicide. Male employees, their families and their work colleagues deserve nothing less.
Politically, we need a far higher profile on men’s health and male suicide, including a standalone men’s health strategy with male suicide as a core element. In addition, we need a Minister for Men to help pull these issues and all the others affecting men and boys together.
For example, tackling male suicide is not just a Department for Health and Social Care issue. Due to the causes of male suicide, we need full involvement from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, Ministry of Justice, Department for Education, Government Equalities Office and many, many more. Only with a Minister for Men (we have had a Minster for Women since 1997) with an overarching responsibility in government to do this will we then get the political change we need. This will of course, help employers too with respect to supporting their work on men’s health and male suicide.
All-Party Parliamentary Group on Issues Affecting Men and Boys report, 'Tackling male suicide: a new ‘whole system’ approach', is available at: equi-law.uk/appg-menboys
Follow the APPG at:
Follow Nick Fletcher MP at: nickfletcher.org.uk
Nick Fletcher MP is Conservative MP for Don Valley and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Issues Affecting Men and Boys.
Why every business needs to prepare for a changing climate
By Baroness Brown, Adaptation Committee of the Climate Change Committee on 01 June 2023
The Climate Change Committee (CCC) is the UK’s independent advisor on tackling climate change. As part of our role, enshrined in law by the Climate Change Act, we assess how well the government is doing in ensuring the country is prepared for the changing climate today and in the future; the legislation calls this adaptation.
Directors in the dock – why health and safety leadership is crucial
By Natalie Walker, Pinsent Masons LLP on 12 May 2023
The role that directors, senior managers and officers play in the implementation and management of their organisation’s health and safety policies and procedures should never be underestimated.
We need more women in safety leadership roles – so let’s #EmbraceEquity
By Louise Hosking, OneWISH Coalition on 11 May 2023
Currently, approximately 21 per cent of health and safety professionals are women, which means the profession is not representative of the workplace. Translate this into leadership roles and we have even more work to do.