Why are men less open about their health issues and how can employers better support male employees affected by cancer?

2 minute read time.

One major issue that has been raised with us is recently is how to get men to be more open about health issues and cancer specifically so that HR professionals and line managers can provide them with the support that they need. 

This problem is not specific to cancer or to the UK.  Research seems to indicate that there are two main reasons why men don’t ask for support, which would apply both to men with cancer and men caring for others with cancer.

1)      They think admitting illness or association with illness makes them appear weak, and worry that a health problem may cause them to be passed over for a job or promotion.

2)      Boys are encouraged to be strong – it is pounded into boys' psyches from an early age that they must be tough, invulnerable and shouldn't express emotions or admit to needing help.

 One major problem of course is getting men to actually confront their health issues let alone to be open about them, and there appear to be a variety of reasons for this. For example, research undertaken by Prostate Cancer UK shows that in the UK men are less confident about approaching their GP with possible cancer symptoms than in other ‘high- income countries’, and are less aware of the age-related risk of cancer.

There is also some evidence that married men are more inclined to confront health issues than unmarried men. Again, research by Prostate Cancer UK seems to support this, showing that ‘unmarried men have a higher risk of prostate cancer-specific mortality compared to married men of similar age, race, stage, and tumour grade’.

So, what can HR professionals do to encourage men to ask for help?  Here are a few ideas as to what you might do – and advising unattached male employees to get married is not one of them! 

  • Run Lunch & Learn sessions on a variety of health and wellbeing topics including cancer to raise awareness of health issues.  As part of this, and to encourage more openness, invite well known male speakers who have had cancer – sportsmen for example – to come and talk about their experience;
  • Get your company to do the ‘nagging’ i.e. run work and cancer sessions specifically for men (but of course run sessions for women too); get senior male managers to attend these and to  encourage their male team members to come along too;
  • Include work and cancer issues in supervisors’ and management training programmes
  • Set up and advertise a cancer buddying programme with a good representation of male buddies.


If you have experience in dealing with this issue, and have had some success, why not tell us about it? We’d love to know more.

  • FormerMember

    Men don't like to be seen to be weak. This is in part to the way we are brought up, Boys don't cry, Wolf Cubs (or whatever they are called nowadays) smile and whistle under all difficulties, and I also think it is partly how we are hard wired.

    If we accept that way back in the mists of time when homo sapiens was coming into being, man is the hunter, woman is not. As the hunter man cannot be seen as vulnerable to his prey should that prey be able to inflict pain or kill the hunter. We've all seen enough nature programmes where some birds, for instance, will divert attention from the nest by playing at being injured and be able fly away faster than the pursuer. If men give out signals of weakness it also dictates the individual's place within the pecking order. If you weren't good at games, teams were selected on the basis of, I guess I've got have him as the least bad choice as the selections were whittled away. I've been part of that process.

    So yes, we are encouraged to be strong and butch, but we are also conscious of our ranking among our peers and we try to be better than our ranking. Not showing pain, weakness, discomfort, etc will all come into that heading. Also there is the belief that men are capable of solving issues.

    Laing complained of a pain down his right side and blamed it on the way he sat. I was sceptical. So he removed the arm rests off his chair and, hey presto, he still had the pain. He then said it must be the way he leant on his desk. I bought none of it, but I was not able to get him to seek help. I did not know this was a sign of fluid on his right lung, but I knew it didn't seem right. Laing also a dislike of the medical profession generally (he would never have told me why even if I had asked), and had I so much as whispered the word cancer (which It thought it could possibly be from other signs, though I had no idea it would be his lung) he would have clammed up. 

    Then we also have the other problem that puts most people off seeing a doctor, male or female alike. The popular caricature of the doctor's receptionists as a fire breathing dragon guarding a cave is not too far from the truth. The idea that one is wanting an appointment (at a time convenient for one's employer as well - there's another issue) that doesn't suit the practice, "Doctor is busy", Doctor may well be, but patient on his/her register is bloody well not well!!!

    Work. There has always been a view that some people take more time off sick than others. This is not just myth, but true. It then rubs off on the rest of us, that if any of us so much as sneeze or cough, we are malingerers looking for an excuse to be off work for 2 to 3 weeks. Of course we then believe, rightly or wrongly, that the malingerers "get away with it", and if the rest of us so much as turn up late as we had a case of the runs in the morning, we would be marched down to HR and given a warning over time keeping. OK, there is exaggeration at play here in my story telling, but I do not believe, especially nowadays where I have seen attitudes harden since 1979 and more so recently, viewing illness as laziness and without any medical complaint, the fear is not a million miles away from my more fanciful telling of the tale.

    In my company, sorry to be un PC and offensive, but our HR team seem to be girlies with no life experience, but with qualifications as long as your arm, probably. The fact they are airheads over various 

    matters such as changing bank accounts, season ticket loans (and not realising a difference between the tube and the mainline services having to be treated differently) adds to a general discontent. The other problem lies in the name. I am NOT a Human RESOURCE, I am a human BEING. The very title of the area of activity tells us all we need to know. We are expendable before the eyes of managers, who in turn, never seem to be expendable.

    This is not a Trotskyist diatribe, it is my fatigue of the way of the world which began with Bob-a-Job which could be exploitative in the years I did it, even on an RAF camp where everybody knew everybody, through to looking through my working life through the wrong end of the telescope with 6 years before my employer will allow me to retire on full pension, and the HR mantra keeps asking me about my career.

    So in simple headlines, 

    (1) We are born this way
    (2) We are brought up this way
    (3) We hate trying to get an appointment with the doctor, even if we don't dislike the medical profession
    (4) We live in fear of losing our jobs
    (5) We do not believe HR is on our side, but is a management tool

    I'm worried I'm the only person to put his head up over the parapet, but is that because other men here are scared if they are identified they would be seen as disloyal employees and they would suffer? Or have they gone through enough with their cancer, or somebody else's that every day of life we have is seen as a bonus?

    Sorry to be downbeat, I was trying to be dispassionate but I had to give up as I couldn't swim against the tide after the third paragraph!

  • Morning  Tim,  Have to agree. I have always disliked the term "Human Resource" for the very same reason, it implies you are a tool to be used, abused and discarded (the definition of resource being a source to be used, yes ? )  :-/

    If companies really wanted to appear compassionate in times when employees need assistance would it not be better, and really obvious to call the present HR dept's  "Colleague Compassion" Dept.
    Also have to agree concerning the ability of HR'ers to be fit for purpose. Ours has the mental aptitude to complete a Rubic's cube in around 40 seconds but is as useful as a chocolate teapot when it comes to any life changing / grief scenarios that can affect staff as they have no personal experience at all in those areas - coming straight from uni they haven't actually "lived" yet. Probably still have both parents alive, no wife, no children, possibly not even a mortgage. No wonder men can't be arsed to even ask about help from these people. Would be a bit like asking a virgin for sex advice  :-)

    Anyway, you know you cannot swim against the tide - Only go through the "motions"  
    Take care Tim and enjoy what is left of the weekend,  George & Jackie.

  • FormerMember

    Excellent post Tim.  As a woman I have to say that I agree with your description of the type of people who seem to run HR departments.  Like you and Dreamthief I hate the words "Human Resource" too.  Dreamthief is right, these people have no experience of life and no compassion.  I don't think many women like to go to them for help and advice either. 

  • I used to work for a very large company at Gatwick Airport i had done so for many years and had a good well paid job, my salary was cut by almost 50% at the start of the recession in 2009 along with some of the other well paid employees, however soon after returning to work from cancer proceedures it became apparent  to me that i was being passed by for any kind of promotion or extra activities which would have restored me back to previous salary range, then in May of this year we were given the new that we were going onto a '0' hours contract,  take it or be dismissed was the option we were handed, this would have meant a £7k drop in salary for me which i thought was totally unaceptable, especially when i was not earning much over the minimum wage at the time, so i was dismissed in an off handed way by a company i had worked for for many years which to me seems very wrong, the people in charge are all new and dont have much idea what they are doing and only seem interested in the bottom line and monthly reports, but then that seems to be the way of the world these days.

    C'est la Vie............