Is Toxic Masculinity Putting Your Workers at Risk?

toxic masculinity

Community discussions around mental health and the issue of men seeking help, are vigorously flowing through the media. This issue comes off the back of the #MeToo movement and the Gillette ad campaign, illustrating the idea of toxic masculinity. While there is a huge amount of hype circulating around this topic, a recent research report adds considerable substance to the issue of men under-performing, when they need help for mental health issues.

The statistics show that three times as many men died by suicide compared to women (six every day in Australia) with women three times more likely to seek help when they need it. It’s alarming to think that traditional masculinity may be linked to higher risks of suicide, substance abuse, early death and violence. Let’s unpick some of the traits of toxic masculinity drawing from the Man Box Study Report and provide guidance for tackling mental health in your workplace.

Toxic Masculinity Traits

Toxic masculinity centres around violence towards both men and women, including abuse, with an undercurrent of always having to be seen as being tough, dominant and aggressive.

  • 1/3 of men believe that violence should be used to get respect
  • 1/3 of men believe that doing housework is not their job and that this remains the responsibility of women
  • 1/4 of men want the final say in financial decisions
  • 40% of men want to know where their wives or girlfriends are at all times.

“Mr Macho” men who endorse toxic masculinity traits may be more likely to consider suicide, drink excessively, take drugs, take risks at work and engage in aggressive driving behaviour. They have shown to be the men who engage in bullying and sexual harassment, commit domestic violence, exhibit bystander behaviour and access pornography. These traits can lead to a higher rate of mental illness with men more likely to die from suicide and homicide and less likely to engage in seeking help from professionals.

See our course, Self Harm and Suicidal Thoughts.

The Man Box Culture

Following on from the decades of research on toxic masculinity traits, this study uses the concept of a Man Box – a set of beliefs within and across society that place pressure on men to act in a certain way – to develop seven rules that can restrict men from seeking help for mental health decline.

  1. Self-sufficiency
  2. Acting tough
  3. Physical attractiveness
  4. Rigid gender roles
  5. Heterosexuality and homophobia
  6. Hyper-sexuality
  7. Aggression and control over women

“Two thirds of young men said that since they were a boy they had been told a ‘real man’ behaves in a certain way”.

The study surveyed 1,000 Australian young men between the ages of 18 and 30 years. 30% of these young men who endorsed the Man Box rules presented with the poorest mental health.

Symptoms of declining mental health and ideas of suicide were more prevalent for young men who aligned to the man box traits. With levels of suicide ideation between 40-55% in this sample, these results are significant. Suicide is the key cause of death in Australian males aged 15 – 44 years accounting for 24% of all deaths for young people aged 18-24 years who died by suicide.

Table 1: Depressive Symptoms and Suicidal Thoughts in the Previous Two Week

seeking help

This study found that those with the toxic masculinity traits of bullying and violent behaviour were six times more likely to have perpetrated violence: 40% reported verbally bullying another person, 28% engaged in online bullying and 27% were involved in physical bullying.

The following table shows that in the month before the survey, over half of the men with man box traits had engaged in verbal, online and physical bullying across Australia, the US and UK. This has major implications for the workplace, especially those with large contingents of young male workers.

Table 2: Reported Perpetrator of Bullying in the Past Month

seeking help

Recommended reading: Simon M. Rice, Rosemary Purcell, Patrick D. McGorry, Adolescent and Young Adult Male Mental Health: Transforming System Failures Into Proactive Models of Engagement, Journal of Adolescent Health, Volume 62, Issue 3, Supplement, 2018.

Actions to Break the Man Box Culture

There are five recommendations within the study to address toxic masculinity.

  1. Government programs and initiatives should focus on ways boys and men can live positive alternatives to the Man Box norms.
  2. Develop new interventions that build awareness, understanding and skills to support young men to live positive alternatives. This includes providing interventions such as training at work, sport and in the community.
  3. Extend the research as a collaboration between government, academia and organisations.
  4. Develop practitioner networks and forums and new tools, and
  5. Align with existing women’s rights and engage men from a positive perspective.

See our article, 12 Crucial Managing Employee Mental Health Articles.

Workplace Strategies

Young men displaying man box traits have declining mental health and wellbeing, experience more negative feelings, engage in risk-taking, including drinking, have more traffic accidents, are more likely to be the victim or perpetrator of violence, and the perpetrator of sexual harassment of women. The more closely young men adhere to the toxic masculinity traits, the more likely they are to experience these negative feelings and behaviours.

There is an urgent and powerful need to promote change to address the social expectations that boys and men must be tough, aggressive, stoic, in charge, and hide their feelings. There are three areas where workplaces can start to affect change:

  1. highlight the harms of man box traits
  2. weaken their cultural grip, and
  3. promote and train in healthy and ethical alternatives.

For industries with large numbers of younger male workers, recognising that a dominant toxic male culture undercurrent exists, is the first step. For businesses, especially those in high-risk industries, training on acceptable workplace behaviours is a must. This starts at the induction and on-boarding phase where policies and procedures should be presented and discussed.

It is here, where specialised training in workplace bullying, sexual harassment, alcohol and drug use can be provided as mandatory training within the first month of the job. This should be followed up by encouraging employees at risk to recognise declining mental health and providing easy access to encourage seeking help early.

One comment by a young worker  indicates the urgent need for change

“It’s gone a little PC (politically correct) in what you can and can’t say, especially in a business environment.”

See our article, Depression Symptoms Rise When You Work Long Hours.

How Can Tech Help?

To start addressing toxic masculinity, organisations need to focus on mental health training that goes beyond the basics.

Mental health solutions delivered via smart devices and online are an efficient way for organisations to provide quicker and accessible support and training for worker mental health.  Tap into Safety offers training delivered online and via smart devices on relevant workplace topics that impact mental health using animation.

As part of an on-boarding and an ongoing wellbeing program, our training helps business to support worker mental health by providing relevant and interactive workplace training. The platform includes training on workplace bullying, sexual harassment, alcohol and illicit drug use, all of which have been shown in this study to be issues for young males with man box traits.

Our clients have seen help-seeking increase by 100%. By encouraging help-seeking early organisations can reduce the escalation into serious stress claims.

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