Male well-being on International Men’s Day

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On November 19, International Men’s Day celebrates the positive value men bring to the world, their families and communities. Positive role models are highlighted, whilst raising awareness of men’s well-being. The theme for 2023 is “ZERO MALE SUICIDE”. Together we can stop male suicide.

Every 40 seconds, somewhere in the world, someone takes their life. Generally, men have poor health seeking behaviours and find it harder to open up or recognise that they need help.

World renowned Psychiatrist, Researcher, Thought leader, Founder of the Friendship Bench and Co-founder of Inuka Coaching, Prof. Dixon Chibunda took time to speak to Eviden employees, sharing his wisdom and inspiration on the topic, and answering some key questions. That talk seemed far too valuable not to share, so we made a summary of the discussion for wider sharing which you can find below.

Dixon initially started by sharing his experience of a patient who took their life and the impact and shame that he experienced around this trauma.

Should companies be doing more to support mental health?

Dixon: “Absolutely! Mental health of employees will often determine how successful a company is. Creating a culture where people feel able and safe to open up is really important. Within the work environment, there are still undertones of stigma which prevent people
from opening up to their colleagues.

What is it that causes stigma around mental health?

“Mental health has been over medicalised, where diagnoses lead to labels. Whilst the diagnoses are helpful to enable access to treatment, it leads to categorising humans. Every human being has a story, and we really need to be focusing on the person’s story and not the diagnosis. The stigma comes from the focus on the condition and not on the story.”

How can mental health be supported better, and with attention for different cultures?

“Across cultures, we all thrive in the presence of expressed empathy. Through expressed empathy we are made to feel respected and understood – the key to empathy is trying to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. When we convey expressed empathy, we remove the barriers that we often refer to as culture. Through the Friendship Bench, our aim was really to create space for people to feel vulnerable and this was the first lesson that I learned from the grandmothers, the importance of feeling comfortable with being vulnerable. Because it is through our vulnerability that we can start to open up, to share our stories and that’s when the healing begins. I would like you all to consider how can we foster expressed empathy in our workplaces, in our families, and our communities?

So, my first take home lesson is that we need to find ways of being comfortable with being vulnerable because vulnerability enables healing to begin. It’s through our vulnerability that we begin to tell the stories that we need to tell, in to order for us to find meaning in the world.

What would you say is the best approach when you feel someone is not opening up about their struggle with depression?

There is a real power in sharing your own vulnerability when dealing with somebody who is not opening up. With the friendship bench, grandmothers would share their own stories about their own vulnerabilities, the things that have happened to them, the severe traumas they have experienced, and that storytelling made me comfortable to open up to them. This is something that we’re not told or taught. Often instead we are told not to show your vulnerability because you lose your professionalism, or I’m the boss, I cannot be seen to be vulnerable. But that’s not true. If you’re a leader or manager, and you share your vulnerabilities, you become a better boss. You connect better with people and with the people that work for you.“

What good practices have you seen in action?

“As people, we connect through stories, genuine empathic stories that have a healthy dose of expressed empathy, and they bring us together. It’s a little bit like watching a great movie or reading a book, and you truly immerse yourself in that book both intellectually and spiritually, it’s kind of cathartic. And the same applies with stories. If you hear a powerful story where someone really opens up, it is therapeutic, so the best entry point for interacting with people is stories, but best made informal.

What I personally do when I’m interacting with my team members, I’ll sit down and have a cup of coffee and I will never start to talk about work. Instead, I will talk about something that is personally meaningful for the person I’m speaking with, especially if you understand a little bit about them. For example, some of my UK team are fanatic about football and Liverpool United. And whatever it is, you enter using something that really brings you together. So, rule number one, never start the discussion directly about work especially if you really want to understand what you folks are going through. Start off with something that is dear to them, something that connects them with the outside world. A connected, non-work entry point will make people feel respected and understood, and acts to anchor their story in their own narrative.”

Men often find it difficult to share openly. How can those barriers be broken down?

“One of the simplest ways of breaking those barriers as I said earlier is through stories. Where you sense barriers, then talk about your own story and share your own vulnerability, your own failure. As men, we find it extremely difficult to talk about our own personal failure, but when we do so, we are actually opening up space to connect with other human beings. We connect better when we feel comfortable being vulnerable, particularly when in a leadership position and we open up with our vulnerabilities, we also inherently share our energy and values as people.”

Do you have further stories you’d like to share?

“Sure, I’ll share another aspect of my story and how I started doing Tai chi. I must have been 10 years old when my parents divorced and at the time, as a child, all I wanted was my parents to be together. I didn’t care about the differences, and I prayed every night to God, and I said, “God, if you just keep my parents together, I will do whatever you want me to do”. But after my parents divorced, I immediately stopped praying. I thought God had abandoned me, and I think looking back that was my first experience of depression. I was fortunate that during that period of suffering, that the caretaker noticed that I had become withdrawn, and he took me under his wing. He introduced me to karate and every single day in the hospital and after school he would take me with him to his club where I started practising karate. I have been practising karate ever since and it became an anchor for me from during those early childhood days. I have since realised the importance of having anchors in our lives, particularly when we are facing difficult challenges. I didn’t know at the time that this would become something that I would hold on to for the rest of my life.

I’ve been practising martial arts since the age of 12 and now I am a black belt, third Dan and I also teach Tai chi. Tai chi is in an amazing way of grounding yourself, it’s like meditation in motion. If you don’t have a physical something that you do to help ground you, that can be problematic. I’m going to talk later about the three anchors, which I think are very important for every man. I started practising Tai chi just over 15 years ago and now I’m doing both Tai chi and Karate but I’m also using it to help kids in my community who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and kids who are broken, so it is actually a beautiful way of healing yourself and bringing yourself into the present moment.”

Do you think many cultures have become too focused on medication, appreciating at the same time how hormone imbalances can be a cause?

Yes, I mentioned right at the beginning we have over medicalised human suffering. There is room for medication, but we know that low and moderate forms of anxiety and depression can respond very well to talk therapy. Having the right support can make a massive difference. We start to believe that everything needs a pill and we’ve forgotten some of the traditional ways of healing and supporting each other. A recent clinical trial run by Harvard University showed that talk therapy was able to alleviate physical pain. They showed that when people who suffered from intractable chronic pain were exposed to this adjusted way of delivering CBT (cognitive based therapy), that they did extremely well in terms of alleviating pain. So, a lot of what we struggle with can be managed with language the right words at the right time from the right person can be extremely powerful and therapeutic.

Can you tell us about these three anchors that you mentioned earlier?

The three anchors are physical, spiritual, intellectual. The physical anchor we already touched on when I talked about Karate and Tai chi – it can be any physical activity. However, an activity becomes an anchor only if it becomes a part of your life, if you practice it regularly and intentionally, ideally every day of your life. For me, I practice karate, tai chi and run daily. The spiritual anchor, now I’m not suggesting that you start going to church or to join a religious group. I believe that every human being, regardless of their religious affiliation, is inherently spiritual in nature, because of our desire to connect with other human beings, our desire to understand who we are and where we come from – that is the spiritual component. I spend at least 10 mins every single day in meditation in the morning and the evening, to ground myself in the present moment. When you think of anxiety it is often grounded in fear of the future, whilst depression is often about things that happened
in the past. When we spend time grounded in the present moment, the more resilient we become. The third is the intellectual anchor and that is constantly challenging yourself to learn and grow. For me personally it’s reading a book which is completely outside of my professional life and challenging myself intellectually.

Those three anchors are what we all need to fall back on. For instance, when I’m facing a very difficult situation or things are really going badly. I will go for a long run, and then practice my Tai chi or do my breathing and I would read something that is completely not related to my profession, and after doing those three things, I would sit to try to address the problem that is currently an issue for me. So please try and consider, if you don’t already have them, I would encourage you to identify your anchors and to hold on to them, because those are the things you fall back on when you’re faced with a crisis.

How do you suggest that we can help break some of these gender specific stereotypes?

I’ll go back to what I shared in earlier. When you observe women interacting amongst themselves, they are more likely to talk about emotional things than men. I’m talking from my own professional experience here having worked with group therapies for both men and women. Men struggle even within the context of therapy and are more likely to struggle to open up emotionally. Generally, women seem to find entry points much easier. Within the Friendship bench, we found Grandmothers inherently have this amazing ability of creating space for people to share for people to share their stories, whilst grandfathers tend to be prescriptive and will tell you what you need to do you know. They don’t readily create that space for opening up. So, how do we, as men, make ourselves feel comfortable with being vulnerable and using expressed empathy to make people feel respected and understood? I talked earlier about opening up your vulnerability by sharing your own story, and the things that have affected you. The things you feel as a human being that make you seem not this big tough person who is running an organisation, but a relatable human being. You can run a team and still be vulnerable. Vulnerability does not take away your leadership skills or your ability to run your team. It helps you to connect better with your team.

Maya Angelo wrote something very beautiful where she said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

And so, as leaders, it’s what we do in the workplace to create the right environment for people to feel they can open up and receive expressed empathy.

Any final comments to close?

Well, I have another quote from Maya Angelo. She’s one of my favourite authors, and she says, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” Some things can’t always be changed, and then sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to step back and change your attitude about it.


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