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Australia’s unhealthy ‘tough guy’ culture

Tough Guy Culture HealthAustralia has a ‘suck it up tough guy’ culture that is more prevalent in blue collar industries, often leading to men not taking appropriate care of their physical and mental health.

Post-doctoral research fellow at the Sydney Black Dog Institute, Andrea Fogarty said males often receive the message that vulnerability is weakness, especially among blue collar workers.

“There is more of that ‘toughen up, harden up, get the job done, don’t be soft’ thinking,” Andrea said, adding that a recent beyondblue survey of blue collar workers found that 20 per cent thought those who seek help for depression and anxiety are weaker than other men.

Some will then verbalise that thinking which decreases the likelihood of vulnerable people working openly to make the necessary changes to improve their situation.

“Our research found that men with traditional ideas about masculinity have this almost unreasonable expectation that they can solve all their problems on their own and are less likely to seek help. They tend to use poor coping strategies that may exacerbate problems,” Andrea said, citing isolation, drugs, alcohol and bad diets.

“The ‘harden up let’s go have a beer and get on with it’ approach definitely makes it worse for some men. It’s just a way of avoidance; a barrier between getting the help you need.”

She said that it is common that some men have mental health treatment delays of up to nine years. This is partly because people often know what they should do to improve their mental and physical health but it doesn’t translate into their behaviour.

“It can be very difficult to make lasting lifestyle changes, especially things like diet or exercise,” Andrea said, emphasising the importance of these in helping people cope with the stresses and challenges of day-to-day life.

“We know that eating well and exercising has great prevention potential and is also an effective treatment strategy,” she said, stressing the important role management plays in fostering a mentally and physically healthy workplace.

Driving Change:

Workplace health programs will not only help workers but also the company’s bottom line. Healthy workers have been shown to be three times more productive and take nine times less sick days.

One of the important issues to tackle is widespread unhealthy eating among blue collar workers. Research has found that whether they want to or not, management influences workers’ diets through time pressure, the environment and their leadership behaviours.

Early starts, short breaks, work pressures and consistently unhealthy site barbecues are all part of the problem that is the limited availability of healthy food.

Describing the situation, one worker said “we look after our tools and machines far better than we do our own bodies”.

Site managers are starting to drive change, however, and some have even gone so far as to ban energy drinks on site, which are blamed for dehydration, insomnia, nervousness, headaches and nausea.

Andrea described other strategies management could implement as learning about, recognising and responding to mental health problems.

“Management should provide workplace training for all workers about what to do, how to help someone and what services are available,” she said.

She also cited worker access to employer assist schemes and management understanding the legal requirements for accommodating mental health problems as critical.

“Change requires strong support from all layers of management and discussion among workers should be encouraged.”

For individuals looking to work on their own personal development but don’t wish to talk with someone, Black Dog’s myCompass is a free online programs that Andrea said has been proven to be as successful as personal treatment for stress, anxiety and/or depression.

Anyone needing support can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Top 5 Mental Health Strategies:

  • Eating healthily
  • Keeping busy
  • Exercising
  • Using humour to reframe thoughts and feelings
  • Help another person