There are a now neighbourhoods in the UK where men can expect to live to about 90 years on average. These areas are, perhaps unsurprisingly, very affluent as well as few and far between.
But they prove something very significant:
Too many men still die early
One big problem is that men generally take too many risks with their health. They are more likely than women to smoke, drink alcohol at harmful levels, use illegal drugs, not eat enough fruit and vegetables, and not protect their skin from the sun. The only health behaviour where men do better than women is physical activity.
Men also delay seeking help from health services. Men of working age visit their GP far less often than women, even when pregnancy and other reproductive health issues are taken into account. Men are less likely to have an NHS Health Check (which aims to prevent or diagnose heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, dementia and diabetes), take part in bowel cancer screening, have a routine eye or dental health check, or visit a community pharmacist. Men under-use psychological therapies too.
Why do men behave like this?
One important explanation is that men are brought up to act tough and not ask for help.
This is particularly the case for mental health problems. The men’s health organisation Movember recently conducted a survey of 4,000 men aged 18-75 in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. It found that 58% of men aged 18-34 feel that society expects them to be ‘emotionally strong and to show no weakness.’ While 77% surveyed believed that talking about their problems helps, more than half admitted that they choose not to speak up. Furthermore, 38% said that their reason for keeping quiet is the fear of coming across as ‘unmanly’ or ‘less of a man.’
If this survey is accurate, traditional masculinity is proving very resistant to change.
There is another dimension to this. Health services have for far too long failed to take men’s attitudes and needs into account. Even though it is clear that men have particularly poor health, GPs, pharmacists and others have not reached out to men and designed services in ways that make them easier for men to use. Many services are open only when men are in work or commuting, for example. Superdrug’s shops display the words ‘Health’ and ‘Beauty’ prominently on their shopfronts, reinforcing the idea that health is mainly for women. Boots’ signage is similar, highlighting ‘Pharmacy’ and ‘Beauty’.
We must first acknowledge that there are serious problems with men’s health and make a commitment to tackling them. At the national level, a government-led men’s health strategy would help enormously. Ireland has had such a strategy since 2008 and it has made a significant impact. Local government can also act on men’s health, as Leeds City Council has recently begun to do, for example by reaching out to single, low-income and isolated men living in high-rise flats. The big health charities that work on issues like heart disease, cancer and diabetes can do more to ensure that their campaigns and services are relevant to everyone, whatever their gender.
Employers have a potentially big role. They can go beyond the traditional health and safety requirements by providing their male staff with health information and awareness-raising workshops, appointing men’s health champions and creating a workplace environment where men feel comfortable discussing health issues and taking time off when necessary.
We know that a focus on men, using approaches that they feel comfortable with, gets results. One very effective Canadian workplace programme aimed at men, POWERPLAY, focuses on healthy eating, physical activity and well-being and includes team-work and competition. In one part of the programme, the ‘Northern Circle Route Challenge’, participants are asked to accumulate enough steps to walk ‘virtually’ around Northern British Columbia, a distance of about four million steps or 2,775 km. To assist with this challenge, participants are given a personal pedometer and asked to record their daily step counts. The evidence shows a significant increase in both moderate and vigorous physical activity levels.
Better health and wellbeing would not only be good for men, it would also benefit their partners, children, friends, communities and workplaces. It would, moreover, save an awful lot of money, in terms of healthcare, social care, welfare benefits and productivity. Men’s health is a very clear win-win.
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Our Wellbeing Programme includes Men’s Health sessions covering a variety of topics including health, wellbeing, prostate health, diet, fitness and mental health.
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Thanks to Peter Baker for this article.
Peter Baker is an independent men’s health consultant. He is also Director of Global Action on Men’s Health, an international UK-based charity that aims to shape global and national health policy and practice. Peter also led HPV Action, a coalition of over 50 professional and patient groups that successfully made the case for the UK’s national HPV vaccination programme to be extended to boys. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society for Public Health and in 2018 won its award for making an outstanding contribution to championing the public’s health. Peter sits on the editorial board of the International Journal of Men’s Social and Community Health and is a consultant for Hampshire County Council on a major pan-European men’s health project (Side-by-Side). He was Chief Executive of the Men’s Health Forum charity from 2000-12.
From 1995-99, Peter was health and fitness editor at a leading men’s magazine (Maxim) and his self-help book, Real Health for Men, was published in 2002.
Peter has run training events regularly for the Men’s Health Forum, Somerset County Council and others. Over the past three years, he has delivered over 30 men’s health awareness-raising events to employees of corporate clients, mainly in London.
Peter Baker hosts the Men’s Health presentation for Your Employee Wellbeing Programme.