Men at Work and Mental Illness

Author: George Hofmann

Men have a poor track record for seeking mental healthcare. The result is higher levels of disability and higher rates of death by suicide in men than in women. Men are less likely to seek treatment than women are, and they seem much more bound to the limitations of stigma. So it’s no surprise that we find higher rates of mental illness, especially mood disorders, in male dominated industries.

46% of men work in male-dominated industries, defined as industries in which more than 70% of the workers are male. Work in male dominated industries such as construction, manufacturing, transportation, utilities, mining and agriculture often includes behaviors identified as contributors to workplace psychological stress. These factors, which include isolated/solitary work, excessive or irregular workloads, poor physical conditions, lack of control, and monotonous tasks, can exacerbate or even cause threatening mood swings.

These industries are also characterized by small companies or independent contractors which often provide little or no healthcare coverage and rarely have structures in place to promote positive mental health or enable crisis intervention. Employees in these fields report high levels of disability, with depression and bipolar disorder ranking as the top reasons for such disability. While stigma often prevents men from seeking help for or admitting to psychological distress, workers in male dominated industries find it difficult to get help even when they want it.

A systematic review of 20 research studies found higher levels of mental illness in male dominated industries and significantly lower rates of mental health literacy. Interestingly, while men in this area of the workforce suffered from more illness and sought less treatment, women employed in male dominated industries reported symptoms and sought care at the same rate as women in the general population.

Many factors impact the way a person responds psychologically at work. These include work hours, level of physical activity, income, time pressure, job demands, job security, job discretion, effort-reward imbalance, role conflict, job value, emotional demands, exposure to violence/threats, social support, and job status. While it’s difficult to approach such a broad statement as, “men in male dominated industries suffer more mental illness,” considering each of these components of work in each occupation and at each company can make the problem more manageable. The identification of how these factors impact individual workers in the companies for which they work can help promote positive change, both for the companies and the employees.

But first we have to make it OK for men to speak up and admit they need help.

The key may be the companies. Of the risk factors for depression – poor health and lifestyles, unsupportive workplace relationships, job overload, and job demands – several are impacted primarily by company culture and job descriptions. If an employer values their workforce and promotes the value of the work being done, steps can be taken to introduce role models and create a safe space for workers to seek help when necessary. The workplace offers an opportunity to develop tailored strategies that target specific high risk industries and occupations.

Given the prevalence of small employers in male dominated industries, this outreach is difficult. Professional associations exist and would be a good place to begin intervening on behalf of male workers who face mental illness. Once a conversation about mental health begins, workers may feel more secure expressing themselves. Just introducing some basic mental health literacy into the banter and verbal sparring often found in such workplaces could do wonders and save lives.

All work has value, and meaningful work is necessary to achieve and maintain positive mental health. In male dominated industries it’s imperative that the value of work be reinforced and that supportive workplaces be established. Workers must feel secure that there is more in their futures than depression and disability. Men in the trades make things. They believe they make themselves. This is a point of strength at which they can begin the effort toward healthy lives. Both at work and after.

George Hofmann is the author of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis. You can find him at the website Practicing Mental Illness.


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