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Addressing the visible (and invisible) health conditions impacting men and women in the workplace; A Q&A with Dr Hugh van’t Hoff, Founder of Facts4Life, a health resilience programme in schools and local GP.
Author: Ruth Cornish, co-founder and director of HRi
If nothing else, Covid-19 has bought the issue of health front and centre in our workplaces. And with this increased emphasis on health and wellness, it feels that 2021 may well be a turning point for many organisations with regards to how they help their employees through some of the most common health issues, both visible and invisible, and indeed how they offer long term support strategies to ensure no employee ever feels that they are alone in their illness. At least let’s hope so.
When it comes to employee health and wellness, HR have an important role to play. Certainly, we aren’t medically trained, but we can spot issues and provide access to professional services for those who need it. Over the years I have witnessed a range of health conditions in my team, many of which have required a unique approach to how we support that team member and ensure they can continue in their role in some capacity.
With this in mind I wanted to look at some of the most common health issues men and women might face in the workplace and then consider how we, as HR professionals, can help to support them in the right way. As part of this, I decided to interview Dr Hugh van’t Hoff, Founder of Facts4Life, an educational programme in schools and local GP, to get his thoughts. What follows is a Q&A with Hugh. I hope it proves useful reading.
Ruth: Hugh thanks for being part of this series we are doing on health and wellbeing. Can we start by talking about some of the most common health conditions both men and women might face?
Hugh: Thanks for having me. Yes certainly. I would like to start by setting the scene, the big picture, from my point of view. We all get ill, most of the time we recover with or without help (much more so now in respect of cancers for instance), childbirth and the rearing of children are common to many of our lives. Our working environments have been slow to adapt to the normality of these events. Hopefully the digital age and Covid will ease the transition to better ways of working round normality.
The most common issues I see are stress, other mental health issues, lifestyle problems like being overweight, lack of exercise and substance abuse (smoking and alcohol mainly). I see a difference in how the genders present. Men still seem to present later and self-medicate with alcohol yet saying that to some extent women are now catching up with their alcohol consumption. Other common problems which impact on people’s ability to work – or work full time – are cancers and their treatment. Less visible illnesses like ME, Long Covid, migraines, and Endometriosis and the menopause (for females) can be incredibly debilitating and cause long term absence from work. You will have come across many of these conditions over the years in your work in human resources?
Ruth: Yes, indeed. Though Long Covid is, of course, a new one for all of us. I’m sure we are just at the start of hearing about people’s struggles with Long Covid. Can you talk more about that please as I know it’s a topic many of our readers will be interested in right now?
Hugh: Absolutely. One of the terrible consequences of the pandemic has been the impact of Long Covid. It’s a constellation of physical and mental symptoms, similar to CFS/ME but with many important distinctions, and it has left many previously fit and well people incapable of going about their daily lives. There are many symptoms of Long Covid, but common mental and physical complaints include breathlessness, brain fog, easy fatiguability, joint or body pain. As a society we will have to accept that Long Covid can sometimes be very debilitating and will mean that those who have it will have to adapt their lives around it. This may well mean that they need to make decisions with their HR and employers about how long and often they can work and what kinds of work they can do. However, on a good note, I would add that like all illnesses, we see a wide range responses to Covid and that Long Covid is not the norm, nor is it something that people cannot recover from. It is important in medicine to see recovery, albeit slow, as the norm and something which is achievable for most people in most conditions.
Ruth: It’s clear that we need to take both the mental and the physical side of Long Covid very seriously, especially in our workplaces. In fact, I think it’s fair to say, how we deal with this (in HR anyway) and it’s mental severity, is not unlike how we might help someone dealing with burnout. Can we talk about burnout actually? In 2019, the World Health Organisation officially recognised burnout in its International Classification of Diseases. Some employers have acknowledged the severity of this occupational phenomenon, investing heavily into employee wellbeing and cultural strategies to keep it at bay, but sadly there are still a number of firms that fail to accept burnout as impacting their employees. Would you agree?
Hugh: Yes. I think it is important that employers recognise this. And it is something that disproportionately affects those in the caring professions – so we see it, breath it and feel it ourselves. What Covid has done is strip the emotional reserves of people right down and exposed their vulnerabilities even further. Things that were given, or certain, can no longer be trusted – it seems. Everyone’s sense of stability has been shaken. We are all experiencing, to a greater or lesser extent, trauma, loss separation, massive spiritual and philosophical change. We need to take this very seriously. Understanding this can help everyone, especially HR professionals. Building resilience and focussing on the simple things will help and may even allow us to re-set our focus in the post-Covid world. And it’s also very important not to catastrophise. Covid is a new illness. In the large, the loss of life we have seen is in addition to the established causes and has only been mitigated with highly disruptive changes to our lives. But the fatality rate is ‘only’ about 2.5% – itself approximately ten times that of seasonal flu. Most people have remained well during the pandemic, or only had mild Covid.
Ruth: Absolutely. I think the main issues tend to come about when companies simply try and solve something as complex as burnout with a one size fits all solution. There is no magic pill here. When it comes to burnout, we need to recognise that every member of our team has utterly different needs, varying stress thresholds, different personalities, and indeed different external pressures upon them. Employers must consider a flexible approach to burnout and take the individual needs of each and every one of their employees into account to find solutions accordingly.
Hugh: I agree, and they should point their employees in the right direction if they appear to be suffering, whether that be directing them towards talking therapies, encouraging them to switch off, helping them to manage workload or indeed encouraging them to see a doctor. Getting in there early is integral. Burnout doesn’t go away on its own and you can’t reverse it. It will get worse unless you address the underlying issues causing it. And there will be more burnout post-Covid, I’m sure.
Ruth: I’m interested in some of the differences when it comes to men and women’s health conditions, can we talk about that please?
Hugh: Well, this IS a big one. We see some marked differences in how the different genders deal with their health issues. In short, men are less likely to access support. The stand-out feature is later presentation. I suspect this is to do with how we rear our boys. They tend internalise their issues and have done since a young age. In short, men aren’t schooled in being open about their emotions: men are often told to, ‘man up’ or made to feel weak because they are causing a fuss. Men’s relative inability to be in touch with their emotional world helps no-one: not the men concerned, their work environment or their relationship with partners and family.
Ruth: Do you feel we give more airtime to one gender over another in terms of health? For instance, in my role in HR we often have very in-depth policies regarding supporting women going through menopause or issues in pregnancy and so forth, but nothing solely for men.
Hugh: Yes, I would say that female health issues get more airtime, and that we need to start talking more about male health. Remember, issues which impact women like childbirth and miscarriage also impact men too, yet they are not encouraged to talk about it in the same way and may not realise they have suffered a loss as profound as their partners’. Certainly (as you point out above regarding the policies you have in place for women) great organisations do tend to support women (who naturally ask for support and have good networks), but men need encouragement and sign posting too. Just because they aren’t asking for help, doesn’t mean that they are okay.
Ruth: OK so the headline here is that men need more help than women in the workplace because they tend to present late and ignore symptoms?
Hugh: No. I think we need to assume they have largely the same feelings and emotions and provide them with the same level of help whilst being mindful of different presentation. And single men are in the most vulnerable category too, so we should pay a little extra attention to this facet of the gender differences (men’s health is improved by being in relationships, women’s health is slightly adversely affected by relationships!). Statistically, men are much more likely to take their own lives, but they are less likely to seek support for mental health issues and the system needs to change to accommodate their needs.
Ruth: Certainly, it seems like men’s health, specifically men’s mental health, seems to still have a stigma associated with it. Earlier this year (in June) we recognised Men’s Health Week, but it’s clear that it’s something we need to be thinking about all year long. With this in mind, I would like to close this piece with seven ways we can all support the health of our male employees throughout the year.
- Use your internal comms to bring resources and information to your employees easily – both when people are working in the workplace or remotely using online channels;
- Try and make sure the language is gender neutral so all employees can relate to it – and review any existing resources to address any language that is either overly feminine or masculine;
- Seek ideas from your employees to see what they would like to learn about through anonymous surveys or idea boxes;
- Think about introducing some activity-based activities or challenges to bring people together to exercise together or virtually e.g. bike races, running and walking team challenges;
- Provide company sponsorship to charity sporting activities to encourage employees to participate in;
- Share and highlight monthly awareness topics around health and wellbeing. These can range from healthy eating with recipe ideas and fresh fruit in the workplace, to provision of mediation exercises and support or other wellbeing initiatives;
- Look at, and review, current wellbeing initiatives in terms of uptake and participation.
Ruth: I do hope this Q&A with Hugh was of interest. This is just the first in a series of health and wellbeing pieces. And now we would love to hear from you. What is it that you want to hear about when it comes to health and wellbeing? Share your thoughts, questions and comments with us and we will share more content with you soon.