the connection between men’s mental health and their careers
This week, our Director, Chris Andrews caught up with Wayne Gillespie, a registered male psychologist, for a discussion about the correlation between male mental health and employment. This is a serious topic and really opened our eyes to the fragility of the human psyche and just how men’s well-being is connected to their career and employment situation.
WARNING: This article covers the sensitive topic of mental health. If you are struggling, or know someone who is, please reach out and get help. We have listed some helpful resources at the bottom of this article.
Chris: So, let’s start by discussing how our career and our mental health align?
Wayne: Well, for men, when you look at the Australian suicide statistics, their mental health appears to be closely aligned to economic or employment circumstances. So, we see that when there is an economic recession such as the Great Depression in the 1920’s the 1987 stock market crash or more recently the GFC around 2011, that men’s suicide rate goes up. Interestingly female rates of suicide appear to be unaffected by economic conditions.
Chris: Was there a spike in men’s mental health issues during COVID for example?
Wayne: Absolutely. For example Mensline reported the number of calls doubled in July August 2020 particularly in areas where there were the strictest lockdowns such as Victoria at this time. There was a 50% increase in calls concerning employment from men during this period.
It’s important to acknowledge that women also reported increase in mental health issues so there were other factors also affecting people during lockdown such as isolation worries about health of family members and so forth.
It is worth stating that males are more likely to have alcohol and substance abuse problems and are 3 times more likely to complete suicide than females. Domestic abuse at the hands of male perpetrators also increased during this period. So men have a bit of work to do reducing their reliance on alcohol to deal with stress and the aggressive behaviours that affects their families well-being and safety.
Chris: I interview lots of people as you can imagine; anecdotally, it is with men in their late 40’s and older that this issue seems to be the most prevalent. Our ego is so connected with our jobs. I completely get it as I am 48 and often feel the same. Do you think this is to do with our upbringing, as in the dated societal expectation that men should be the bread winner? If that is the case, as equal gender representation continues to occur in boardrooms and on management teams, can we anticipate this issue occurring with women as well?
Wayne: Interesting question and one that cannot be answered yet. According to the stats, up until 2018, this has not happened. This suggests that males are much more invested in the ideology that their sense of self-worth and identity is strongly connected to their work or employment situations.
Chris: Is this a nature vs nurture question? As a psychologist, when talking with your clients for this reason, do you trace their concerns back to their childhood, or is that just something from the movies?
Wayne: Potentially, there does appear to be a roughly equally mix of biology and environment when considering these factors. It is certainly apparent that our beliefs can be influenced by our background in terms of exposure to cultural and family attitudes and beliefs about gender roles. There are also biological factors that can be influential such as personality style, genetic predisposition that can influence men’s attitudes and emotional well-being. Even being male means that you are less likely than females to seek help for psychological stress.
Chris: So, for example, you may have been raised 50 years ago to believe you are the male of the house and therefore responsible for your mother and your siblings and your family and this is how you should act, and these are the jobs you should do when you grow to adulthood?
Wayne: This is a complex topic, but yes, often our attitudes are formed initially from societal expectations and family attitudes we are exposed to when young.
A child’s environment can influence their association between a career and security. Perhaps their Dad was out of work and it fractured their family, perhaps they saw their parents fight about money, perhaps a father emphasised job security over career satisfaction – all these types of influences could raise anxiety levels about working and providing for themselves and family in economic downturns. However, most of us probably experience stress when our employment is unstable.
Chris: So, what ages are most common for men to feel this vulnerable around their career and mental health?
Wayne: Well, we see a trend where men in their late 40’s hit the clichéd midlife crisis, which is a genuine, and once again we see men’s suicide rates increase between the ages of 40 and 50. Factors in mid-life for men are often about career issues (and sometimes coming to terms with less robust physical health too). For example, when you hit middle age, men in middle management roles may start to feel a bit vulnerable about where they are in their career. Perhaps they have career regrets or haven’t got to where they thought they were going to get to when they were in their 20’s, or they have a dissatisfaction with their career, or believe that it’s too late to chase their dream.
These thought patterns are very common and very normal at this stage of life. So as a psychologist I try and normalise this with my clients and help them work through their fears and focus on problem solving and setting valued goals that may be challenging yet still achievable.
Chris: This is quite relatable; let me give a personal example. So, as originally from the UK, I live across the world from my old mates and I miss them all, but there is always a part of me that is nervous about reconnecting because of all the magnified feelings and anxieties the reunion will bring. Who is doing better than me? I think that they all are, regardless.
Wayne: The interesting question is when you say better than you, are they fitter, do they have bigger families, or is it their income and wealth?
Chris: Funny, it is all of those, but money is probably the first thing I compare… it’s the easiest metric. Maybe as a bloke, I see financial wealth as the easiest tangible yardstick of success. It’s an obvious aspect to compare, but isn’t the only one, right?
So, without prescribing a remedy for the general population, what are the methods you suggest which men should use to help them deal with any anxiety or stress around job hunting, redundancies or career hurdles? You mentioned getting perspective?
Wayne: Well perspective taking is certainly important. I work with clients to help them turn their perception of the world from half empty to half full and be comfortable with the fact that life isn’t always on an upwards trajectory – so, how to ride out the storms so to speak. Sometimes I share my own story – I have had several careers, including this one which started in my 40’s, so I have had to work my way up and start at the bottom all over again. There is time, and it is possible to find work, change your career or, study again – (we tend to underestimate our ability to pick up a new job the older we get. I see time and time again – men catastrophising; ‘How do I interview? How do I update my resume? I haven’t worked for X amount of time?’ This is appropriate anxiety for the situation. The task then is to work on the getting the skills they need i.e. to leverage networks, be aware of strengths they bring to any position, practice interview skills etc. Focus on what they can influence and accept what they can’t the old serenity prayer! Set realistic goals, get feedback on updating their resume, be willing to ask for help from others if stuck.
Chris: This is resonating as I notice that candidates often switch off, disconnect and avoid their resume or job applications, or alternatively they will send me their resume every day with minor modifications. Do you think the latter may be because they want to feel in control?
Wayne: Yes, when in fact this behaviour highlights that they are actually feeling out of control of their situation. So we can end up using excessive avoidance or control strategies to reduce our anxiety. So encouraging problem-solving behaviour and focussing on the things that are likely to make a difference not the minor details can help people move forward.
Chris: This cycle is decreasing circles, which doesn’t help, right? In my experience, and you know I’m not an expert, candidates who find a way to find some space between themselves and the issue seem to come out the other end faster. Here is an example I have come across a few times. Someone has failed to find work and is in a tough place, but decides to start going for a run a week and 3 months later, they are training for a marathon! All of their what was once quite destructive energy, is now channelled into something more positive and beneficial – their sleep is better, their diet is better and the cloud starts to lift. I guess their perspective starts to come back.
Wayne: Yes, then they are looking for other things within their sphere of influence, can generalise it and say, ok if I can make even a small difference, or achieve a small goal, then I have a feeling of value. My worth is not just locked up in money and a job. Part of the counselling process to identify other goals and help people accept the things they can’t change– global downturns being one of them.
Part of our development is to get more psychological flexibility so we can adjust our attitudes and behaviour to adapt to the situation rather than rigidly hold on to beliefs and actions that no longer work during major changes. In general I think humans a pretty good at adapting as we’ve seen in these Covid times.
Chris: So back to the nature vs nurture question…
Wayne: Well, maybe there is a biological component to men being more reluctant to talk about their problems and seek help compared to women. Male culture also makes us reluctant to share our vulnerability, it’s seen as a weakness. It is this pattern of thought that keeps men silent when they are struggling with mental health issues.
However I do strongly believe these unhelpful male behaviours are learnt and can be changed or unlearnt-otherwise I wouldn’t be in the counselling business!
Chris: Wayne, thanks so much for your thoughts on what is such a sensitive issue. Just talking and listening to other people seems like a big step.
On a lighter note, one of your earlier careers was as a professional musician, singer and songwriter. You have a new album coming out called Delusions, don’t you?
Wayne: Yes, I have been working on this for nearly 20 years, so it’s pretty exciting (and scary) to finally be getting it out there! Music listening can also good for well-being – in fact when surveyed it’s the most used stress management strategy that humans use! There is research suggesting that listening to music lights up our brain more than any other activity.
So activities such as; playing or listen to music, take part in yoga, mindfulness mediation, reduce reliance on alcohol, connect with others, exercise, participate in pleasant activities, find areas for achievement that may not always be career related and be kind to ourselves and others can contribute to maintaining or improving our mental well-being.
Now, more than ever, check in on your friends and family and see how they are going – you never know until you ask.
While this interview was conducted with a registered psychologist, it does not replace or constitute professional advice. You should do your own research using genuine and factual resources and seek immediate advice if you are struggling.
- Lifeline Australia: a suicidal crisis or emotional distress helpline – 13 11 14
- Beyond Blue: Mental health and suicide support – 1300 22 4636 / beyondblue.org.au
- Mind Spot: a free telephone and online service for people with stress, worry, anxiety, low mood or depression – 1800 61 44 34 / https://mindspot.org.au/
- Men’s Line: Men’s mental health – 1300 78 99 78 / https://mensline.org.au/
Check out Wayne’s music and support him, here!BACK