Ending the Stigma: Men Speak Out About Mental Health

By Stephanie Chan

“I’d been to a Lunch and Learn and I’d heard all about the symptoms of depression and anxiety, and I just shrugged my shoulders and thought, ‘Well, that must be normal because everybody else around here seems to be feeling the same.’” —Brian Henderson, former C-Suite leader and founder of Whole Business Wellness Limited

In 2018, Brian Henderson was serving as chief operating officer of a global law firm in Asia when his employer announced a major worldwide restructuring. Henderson, then 55, had always considered himself even-keeled and resilient, but now he was thrown into an uncertain new world at work. 

“People were looking to me for answers as to how many job losses, what would be their new reporting line, who would be their new boss…and I had no answers,” Henderson remembered at the recent #EndTheStigma: Men & Mental Health event. Organized in partnership with The City Mental Health Alliance Hong Kong, the panel was the first in AmCham’s new Social Impact Series. “That was the first time I ever cried in the office in my career—when we had to make that announcement.” 

Henderson was one of five panelists—entrepreneurs, corporate leaders, and experts on wellness and psychology, all of them male—who gathered at The Executive Centre in Central in June to discuss their experiences with mental health, anxiety and stress in the workplace. The goals of the event, which coincided with Men’s Health Week, were to raise awareness around men’s mental health and remove the stigma of men speaking about their feelings.

Recognizing the Signs

Hiren Khemlani, a sports and performance psychologist who works with individuals and organizations including sports teams, corporates and schools, called mental health a “silent crisis” among men. Thanks to a “literacy gap” between men and women about mental health issues, Khemlani said, men often have trouble identifying when problems arise. 

After his work troubles began, Henderson experienced a litany of family and personal challenges that left him sleeping only two or three hours a night and suffering from constant stomach upset. He also experienced emotional changes: low energy, a loss of focus, and frustration and anger at the office. Henderson had previously attended corporate sessions about recognizing the signs of anxiety and depression, but seeing that those around him seemed just as miserable, he assumed that there was nothing he could do.

According to Khemlani, depression or anxiety tends to show up in men as irritability, risk-taking behavior, or substance use disorders, which colleagues and friends may not immediately connect to mental health. 

“I would swear in the office, which is something I don’t normally do,” Henderson recalled. “Just as my way of expressing my frustration.” His relationships struggled; he felt disconnected from friends, work, and family. 

It was Henderson’s GP who finally suggested seeing a psychiatrist. Although he had made the appointment hoping to find medical solutions to his insomnia and stomach problems, when she suggested speaking to someone about his mental health, “I sighed a big sigh of relief and thought, that’s absolutely what I need,” Henderson said.

Ending the Stigma

Men are often reluctant to speak to mental health professionals because of cultural norms against displaying emotion and vulnerability, Khemlani said. This is especially true when workplace difficulties are involved. “It’s really tied in with our identity [as breadwinners], so it’s no surprise that unemployment becomes one of the biggest factors that influences depression in men, significantly more so than in women.” 

And especially in Hong Kong, there’s pressure to appear to be running at maximum capacity. “There’s this need to show that you’re able to handle the demands of the job and it’s not going to disrupt your work,” Khemlani said. This pressure tends to become internalized, so that even not being busy enough at work can make people feel stressed and insecure, he added. 

But organizations that ignore mental health and employee burnout do so at their own peril: according to the WHO, depression and anxiety results in US$1 trillion per year in lost productivity to the global economy.

Leaders in a company can help to set the tone at work by role-modeling openness about personal struggles. “Demonstrate that it’s okay to be vulnerable, and why you’re doing this,” Khemlani suggested. “The more you’re able to open up with your employees, and the more that companies encourage these kinds of initiatives, the more people are going to…trust that the company is actually there for them.”

Of course, this isn’t always easy for leaders, especially male ones. Henderson remembers thinking, “‘Yes, I want to be vulnerable, I want to open up, but I just don’t know how my team will react. I don’t think that’s what they expect from me.’”

Gilbert Li, a partner at Linklaters who moderated the event, recounted how senior management at his firm helped change the initially lukewarm takeup for on-site counseling. Senior partners from around the world recorded their stories of personal struggles—about hiding cancer from colleagues, or dealing with mental health problems—which were then shared in a company-wide webinar. “I think that resonated,” said Li, noting that the firm’s psychologists are now always fully booked.

Corporate Responsibility

Leaders also have to take a critical look at their business’s structure and priorities. Henderson said that offerings like company-sponsored yoga classes and on-site counselors and hotlines tend to put the onus on individuals to fix themselves. 

“What I don’t see so often is companies actually thinking, ‘Well, what is our responsibility here?” he said. “‘What are we doing to create that environment that’s clearly causing a lot of stress?’” Basic business decisions around resourcing and expected workload contribute to a lot of the workplace mental health problems that have become so prevalent in recent decades.

Training down the management chain is also important. Panelists noted that mental wellness initiatives are often stymied at the middle of the hierarchy, where managers are under pressure to maintain short- to medium-term productivity. They also may not have the skills, training or confidence to help subordinates with mental health issues. “[Middle managers often] don’t know that it’s important, or they don’t know how to do it, or they haven’t prioritized it properly,” acknowledged David Butts, President Asia Pacific & Group EVP at Techtronic Industries Co Ltd (which co-sponsored the event).

Help Me, Help You

As important as it is for companies to create a safe environment and to make decisions with employees’ wellbeing in mind, in the end, “The company can’t manage somebody’s health,” Butts said. “You as an individual have to be aware of what’s going on with you, and you have to be able to develop that awareness.”

But companies can help by giving employees the tools to understand themselves and their mental states more clearly. Simply informing employees about the symptoms of depression is not enough; Henderson recommends using resilience scales to assess specifically where a person sits on the spectrum from struggling to thriving, and to understand a person’s particular vulnerabilities. 

Workers can also manage up by communicating with their supervisors. “If you have an honest conversation [with your manager], you’re giving them the chance to actually support you,” said Khemlani. Although going to a manager about workplace pressures is never easy, “If you’re not producing your best work because the demands are too much, then whatever issues you’re worried about when it comes to telling your boss aren’t going to matter,” he explained. “Because your performance is probably going to be showing that.”

The Habits of Highly Mindful People

The panelists compared their favorite strategies for mental wellness—strategies that any individual can adopt regardless of corporate support. For example, Henderson maintains his balance through meditation, journaling, and recording his emotional states on an app called FormScore. 

For Butts, “You can’t talk about mental health without talking about physical health.” He added that physical wellness is often easier for men to understand than emotional and spiritual wellness, but that all three must be continually maintained and worked on.

Khemlani recommends that people focus on the things that are within their control. “If you’re really worried about [losing your job], spend half an hour a day learning a new skill…[If you can say] ‘If the worst happens, I do feel confident enough that I’m going to get another job because I have developed these new skills,’ that’s going to reduce that anxiety.”

Gianni Melwani, a yoga teacher, entrepreneur and ambassador for Lululemon who led participants in a breathing exercise at the end of the session, spends a few minutes every day doing nothing. “No app, no phone, no music, no walking around in nature—just be with yourself for a few minutes every day,” he said. Over time, he said, this grows into real, positive internal change. 

Stand by Me

Studies have shown that workers are more likely to confide mental health struggles to colleagues than to HR or managers, and more than one panelist mentioned the importance of seeking out honest connections with other people. At the office, invite coworkers for “lunchtime with a purpose,’” Khemlani suggested. “It’s a chance to vent. If there’s a particular issue that’s going on at the workplace, maybe [your colleagues have] solutions that they can share with you, things that have worked for them.”

Henderson echoed the importance of peer support. Participants in the pro bono mental health support groups he runs with a partner, Vivian Cheng, “say they have been far more effective than pretty much any of the $3000-an-hour psychiatrists that they’ve ever seen,” he said. “Just because it’s a safe environment where they can talk and share…and they can hear from other people who’ve had similar experiences [with mental illness].”

For Melwani, one of the big takeaways from the event was indeed hearing the stories of men who had gone through personal traumas and come out stronger. “To see people, who have a lot of years of experience in life under their belt, openly share without fear…breaking those stigmas towards [not] talking about these things as men because it looks girly, it looks weak, it looks scary—I think it’s a show of strength.” 

Further Reading:

https://hbr.org/2019/12/burnout-is-about-your-workplace-not-your-people

https://www.who.int/teams/mental-health-and-substance-use/mental-health-in-the-workplace

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