Men and Stress: The Epidemic We Don’t Talk About

New research from Mind shows that men are twice as likely to have mental health problems due to work-related stress, compared to problems outside of work.

The survey results also suggest that men are less prepared to seek help and take time to recover from work then than women, which proves the stigma problem behind mental health in men is still very serious.

Why? You could simply argue that the cliché is true, that men won’t ask for directions and women will, that in general, the macho culture that got us out of caves pervades the modern male mind. I will offer that it’s a more profound problem than that.

If it’s true that, as Mind’s results show, two in five women (38%) feel the culture in their organisation makes it possible to speak openly about their mental health problems, but only one in three men (31%) feel the same way, one can either assume that the remaining 69% of men work in totally different organisations than those of the female sample population, or that in general, men tend to simply not see their work colleagues as emotionally available enough to share their pain. Can that be true? No, it can’t. Mind’s results also suggest the three in four line managers (74%) feel they could effectively support a team member with mental health problems, so there’s clearly a consensus (although female managers feel 14% more able to offer support than their male counterparts) to show that the help is there if needed.

The issue is not, then, availability; the problem is deeper. As Jonny Benjamin’s brave account of his recovery from a suicide attempt chronicles, whilst the number of women taking their lives has halved in the past 30 years, the number of men taking their lives during the same period has actually increased. As Jonny points out, even the dictionary definition of masculinity uses ‘toughness’ and ‘ruggedness’ as defining characteristics.


The problem with a definition of being ‘a man’ that relies on principles of what being ‘tough’ is, is that actual robustness of character, emotional resilience, the ability to cope with stress and manage discord within and outside oneself, isn’t a muscular sort of strength. One isn’t resilient because one is ‘tough’. Ask any mother. As a well-known bit of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ says, and where Wilde makes it clear that being ‘manly’ is a self-defeating prophecy, men would do well to turn into their mothers, but often turn into their fathers; this is because they are left with little choice by a society that demands men behave according to the rules of masculinity. Even the current hipster trend for well-kept beards, combed hair, logging shirts and big boots attests to an ideal man who could wield a huge ax and wrestle bears with his bare hands, though most hipsters are much more likely to be found sipping macchiatos and gently biting (mind the moustache oil) on gluten-free desiccated coconut-sprinkled energy balls than they are felling trees in British Columbia’s forests.

The work I do (psychobiology of stress) brings me, however, to a very close perspective on this phenomenon, because nowhere is the male stigma of mental health (which is clearly greater than in women) better seen than when you look at the autonomic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that controls unconscious bodily functions such as breathing, the heartbeat, and digestive processes) and the effect of stress. Its this interest in the response the human body has to stress, which as Robert Sapolsky found when working with primates, originated in our cave days, but has survived into an age where we get cardiovascular disease from it, that has led me to read research on why men, in particular, seem to be affected by social behaviour in a physical way, more so than women. Research looking at the cortisol response (cortisol is a stress hormone) in men with regards to the loss of social influence, Catherine Taylor found that “young men who lose social influence while working with other young men exhibit cortisol response. In contrast, women do not exhibit cortisol response to loss of social influence, nor do men working with women.”

In other words, some of the stigmas are hard-wired. If men are wired to compete for social influence, and they are flooded with cortisol when social influence is threatened, they will always try to out-Trump each other. Achieving masculinity, then, is inbuilt into the mechanics of maleness. But is the behavior surrounding this hardwired mechanism? No. That is fuelled by our culture. A culture invested in making men soldiers who never cry or moan, a culture where a man complaining about his mental state is immediately seen a weak.

This culture won’t change easily: but perhaps bringing better insight into it will. No doubt, we all have to work hard to reduce the stigma, to let our boys become our mothers, to let our men become themselves without the intemperate cloak of toughness society currently asks them to wear. But I believe that we can also, through the possibilities better wearable sensors and better algorithms (ones that understand the human condition) will bring, give men a way to look at their emotional resilience in real-time, a way to look at stress and its effects on an ongoing, precious relationship between awareness and productivity, between being a man, and be simply human.