Burnout: why prolonged work stress is a danger to physical and mental health – especially for men – and what needs to be done about it
- In societies that frown on men who show signs of vulnerability, burnout can play out as irritability, aggression, or an escape into alcohol or drugs
- A recent panel on men and mental health looked at why change needs to come from the top of the corporate ladder and how employees need to play their part too
Burnout doesn’t happen overnight – it builds slowly over months, often years. You might be managing the symptoms on a daily basis, just getting by, but left unchecked you risk wreaking havoc on your health, happiness, relationships and career.
The time to do something about it is as soon as you recognise that something is wrong.
“I didn’t take action early enough,” said Brian Henderson, a former C-suite leader in Asia and founder of Whole Business Wellness, speaking on a recent panel on men and mental health. “I’d heard about the symptoms of depression and anxiety and thought everyone was feeling the same, so didn’t do anything.
“I did disclose it to a few people, but they didn’t know what to make of it. In Asian culture, there is the expectation that men need to be macho and strong and lead from the front. I wanted to be vulnerable and open up, but didn’t know what my team expected from me.”
Henderson said he struggled for several years with a series of personal and professional challenges before seeking help in early 2020.
Part of international men’s mental health week, the breakfast Zoom event, jointly organised by the American Chamber of Commerce and City Mental Health Alliance Hong Kong, saw an audience of more than 180 tune in – a sign that the corporate world is starting to sit up and take note. But much more needs to be done to raise awareness and encourage men who need help to seek it, participants heard.
“Men are less likely to report mental health than women, but suicide for men is double that of women,” said Hiren Khemlani, a performance psychologist and corporate wellness trainer. “There is a problem there – men aren’t getting the treatment they need.”
Men tend to be less informed about mental health than women, Khemlani said. Gender stereotypes also play a role, with men traditionally seen as being stoic in facing adversity and not needing anyone’s help. In a society that frowns on men who show signs of vulnerability, that tends to play out as irritability, aggression, or an escape into alcohol or drugs.
“Men get diagnosed with substance abuse disorder, or antisocial disorder, but that may be masking anxiety or depression,” Khemlani said.
Change needs to come from the top of the corporate ladder, with those in senior leadership not only personally showing that it’s OK to be vulnerable, but explaining why they are doing it, the audience heard. The uncertainties and challenges posed by the pandemic have made this more important than ever.
“If you tell a personal story, express why you are doing it, so [employees] can open up when they have issues,” Khemlani said.
“The more companies encourage these initiatives, the more able they are to open their issues and vulnerabilities and trust the company is there for them. It’s got to come from the top.”
That depends on men such as Henderson and David Butts, Asia-Pacific president and group EVP of Techtronic Industries – who also shared his story on the panel – coming out and speaking honestly about their struggles.
Butts’ background, which focused on achieving in education and business, had not prepared him for certain challenges in his later life.
“When I went to get some mental health support from professionals, they opened up a whole new world. How to get in touch with your feelings – it was a totally foreign language for me. The lights went on when I realised you don’t just develop the business aspects, you have to develop the emotional and spiritual side,” Butts said.
He added that, like a lot of men in the corporate world, he made most of his friendships in the office rather than outside.
“It means that when you have a problem in the office, you don’t have any place to turn to. It’s a fundamental problem,” Butts said.
Henderson would like to see more companies thinking about what they can do to create an environment where staff can thrive.
If an employee is struggling, rather than the onus being on that person to fix themselves, he’d like to see companies stepping in to provide additional resources if necessary, or addressing a toxic work culture. And simply slapping employees’ mental health management onto managers is not necessarily the way to go.
“At the manager level, that’s one more responsibility that goes to the bottom of the list, or they may not have the skills or the training to deal with these complex issues. If these things were easy, we’d have cracked it a long time ago,” Henderson said.
Butts recognised the role large companies need to play in staff’s mental well-being, but said employees need to play their part, too.
“If there’s a psychologist on staff, that’s great, but it comes down to the individual to manage themselves and the leader to help create that [supportive] environment,” Butts said.
“If you start early enough, you will avoid ending up where I did,” Henderson said. “It took me a long time to get better.”