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toxic workplace

Why men are escaping toxic working cultures

Masculinity

The new 'Golden Handcuffs' may be the comfort of workplace perks, but many men are seeing beyond the superficial care and seeking something more meaningful in their work and lives...Lara C. Cory investigates.

Facing a death sentence in prison and a very public fall from grace, 12th century statesmen and scholar Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy. One of the most important philosophical texts of the Middle Ages, Boethius channelled the wisdom of the Ancient Greeks, to consolidate his own misery, explaining that human beings are not in control of most what happens to them. What we’ve come to accept as the fundamental ingredients of happiness (riches, status, power and pleasure) are in fact gifts of good fortune, and not in any way reliable guarantees of fulfilment. The ancient Greek philosophers understood that happiness cannot be built upon factors that are governed by chance. To achieve satisfaction in life they understand that one must look beyond the superficial trappings of ‘success’ and rely instead on the only thing that you can truly call your own – your mind.

While you might not be an imprisoned statesman, and of course this isn’t the Middle Ages, Boethius’ message remains remarkably resonant today. You’ve worked hard, got the qualification, built the career, bought the house, got a wife and maybe some kids and yet, whether through circumstance or misfortune, happiness remains elusive. Instead of feeling like you’ve got it all, you feel trapped; overwhelmed by the pressure to maintain all your ‘successes’ and still reach for more. In striving for a happiness that is defined by ambition and achievement and acquisition have men been conditioned out of seeking fulfilment where it really counts?

Andy is 55, an age where, like Boethius, he was firmly-established in life; earning a very nice living as a divisional manger in a large construction firm, living in a large house in an idyllic Berkshire village with his beautiful wife. But last year Andy decided to leave his managerial role to start a business as a handy man.  “People used to call me a plodder. When I started out in my trade as a carpenter I never thought I’d end up attending management meetings in the board room. I got to senior site manager and I was comfortable; happy in the role, with the money. But then you get to a certain level and your job security is more at risk. If you’re delivering, then you’re fine but if you’re not then you become zero. For the last 15 years I’ve been working in that environment and feeling sort of like a football manager – always fearful of my job and the pressure to deliver is constant. Leicester won the league with Claudio Ranieri managing, against 5000-1 odds, and yet within 9 months he was sacked. Hero one minute, and zero the next.”

To trade a luxurious lifestyle, professional status and security for the humble bearings of a factotum might sound crazy but after 15 turbulent years taking on high pressure roles, an unexpected break between jobs led Andy’s wife to suggest that he try something different. “I would have automatically just kept plodding along. I’m 55, I’ve got another 5 or more years before I can think of retiring and my default setting was to just go back to what I know.” Comparing the inertia of doing the same thing for 39 years to a robotic existence, Andy admitted that while “getting up at the same time each day, having the same routine, doing what I was paid to do” might have become tedious, it was also reliable, “you know that on the 29th of each month, there’s going to be money going into your account. Come what may, you still get paid.”

The prospect of going it alone and setting up a new business was frightening, “I’d have to do my own taxes. Would I get work? Can I earn enough just to pay the bills never mind the extras? Could I physically manage it, was I fit enough?” With no kids at home to worry about, and with a wife who was also building her own business, why did Andy view his potential failure more critical than his wife’s? Why did he view himself as provider and not, like his wife, a contributor to cost of their shared life?

Psychologist and founder of the Male Psychology Network and the Gender Equity Network Dr John Barry, says it’s a primal instinct that’s responsible for a man’s urge to provide. He feels it’s a mistake to believe that masculinity is purely learned and independent of biology, explaining that men feel they must “be a fighter and a winner, be a provider and protector (especially of women and children) and have mastery and control (over his emotions).” For many men, the value of work and financial status sits unchallenged at the top of their list. Generations of social conditioning, and often direct guidance from parents has taught sons that what it means to be a good man, is not to let your emotional needs distract you from the really important things; to provide, achieve and protect.  It’s just what men are supposed to do, right? Well, maybe not according to a new wave of writing on the topic.

In March last year, psychologist, author and entrepreneur and Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup, Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic wrote a book about the damaging cycle of poor leadership in business. Titled Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?: (And How to Fix It) Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic believes that most organisations equate leadership potential with a handful of destructive, typically masculine personality traits, like overconfidence and narcissism. These traits may help someone get noticed and selected for a leadership role, but in reality they’re the exact reason why someone with these characteristics will not be successful as a leader. He says that all too often, competent women and men who don’t fit the stereotype are unfairly overlooked resulting in a flawed system that rewards arrogance over humility, and loudness over experience.

In January last year, the Financial Times published an article revealing the “Top 5 Essential Skills” to succeed at work in the 2020s. In amongst creativity and adaptability, they listed emotional intelligence as a crucial skill to develop in the modern workplace. The so-called “soft skills” of being able to collaborate, listen actively and respond to body language will become more important in career cultures that are changing rapidly. Workplaces and employers are placing more value in empathy and the open exchange of skills encouraged in practices like coaching and mentoring.

Tracy James is a leadership, life and career coach, working primarily in corporate IT for the last 12 years. Every day she witnesses the destructive consequences of aggressive charisma in leadership. “Promoting and rewarding managers who work 18-hour days and adopt aggressive, macho techniques sends a powerful message” says James, “but the unhealthy cycle can be broken by investing in training and supporting leaders who demonstrate healthy work attitudes and empathic managerial styles.” Nurturing managers who lead by example and keep sustainable hours, who learn from failures and adopt more effective leadership methods might not be a sexy fringe benefit like gym membership or a company car, but James is certain that more meaningful, long-term changes like this would result in staff who have more time and headspace to thrive proactively, rather than subsist in a terminally reactive state.

Golden handcuffs, a phrase coined in the 70s, refers to the alluring benefits designed to encourage already well-paid employees to remain within a company or organisation instead of moving on. Today, the golden handcuffs look very different to the simple time/salary contract of years gone by. Companies are now offering a range of benefits from private health cover and gym memberships to extra days off to keep their retention levels high.  But it’s going to take a lot more than superficial perks to improve the harmful workplace cultures of today. James agrees that while we’re going in the right direction and there’s a lot of good intentions, there’s also a misunderstanding about whose responsibilities are what, when it comes to well-being. “Having fruit bowls and snooker tables is great, but if you’re working 12-hour days, doing the job of five people, trying to lead without training with unrealistic pressures, what’s a banana going to do for the mental stress and strain you’re under?”

Back in 2017/18, The Harry’s Masculinity Report was commissioned to learn more about men today in the UK and the US. The grooming brand teamed up with University College London to conduct the largest-ever academic study into men and masculinity. Their findings proved overwhelmingly that the strongest predictor of a positive mental mind set was job security and satisfaction, with relationships and good health positioned much further down the list.

For Andy, one of the biggest obstacles to making a change in his professional life that would ultimately lead to his improved well-being was the fear of letting down his wife, “I didn’t want her to feel more pressure to contribute (financially). I’ve provided for this long.” Being socially and biologically programmed to provide, it’s no surprise that Mind UK researchers revealed that men are twice as likely to have mental health problems due to work, compared to problems outside of work. One in three men attribute poor mental health to their job with unrealistic workloads being the primary cause of high stress. Simon Gunning, CEO of CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) agrees, “we know that some big indicators of unhappiness in men can stem from their professional life.”

“I’ve never been one to bring my stress home” says Andy, “as soon as I walked through the door, I’d do my best to shut it off. I didn’t want pass that mental burden on to my wife. I thought I should deal with it myself. It used to be that when I got home, I’d go straight upstairs to wash and change. Now when I come home, I sit down, without changing, and ask my wife about her day because I have the headspace, I’m more relaxed. And we’ll talk about our days. I’ve never had that before.”

Women have had and continue to have catalysing moments helping them break free from their various gender traps. But what’s being done to help men escape from theirs? Martin Seager who studies gender scripts and the links to suicidality, believes we need to dismantle the taboos about acknowledging male vulnerability. “The unspoken rules of what it means to be masculine, and how ‘real men’ are supposed to behave need to be the subject of careful research and increased understanding.”  His colleague Dr Barry wants to widen the definitions of masculinity, and for men to understand that seeking help means taking control not losing control; a message that honours instead of ignoring gender differences, and the pressure on men to be ‘strong’.

Something that holds many men back says James, is an inclination to seek goal-oriented happiness; evidenced in the wise words of The Notorious BIG “mo money, mo problems”. While not problematic in itself, goal-oriented happiness is often the root cause of people’s misery, because as our flawed instinct dictates, no matter how much money you earn, how much stuff you acquire, how much status you gain, you will always want more; or as James describes it “I’ll be happier when…” The Berkshire-based coach who helps people reconnect with their core values reveals, “I have clients who have all the outward trappings of the wildly successful yet who feel terribly unfulfilled. With focused self-reflection or some sessions with a coach” James says with a cheeky grin, “most people realise that it’s not a higher salary, a company car or that plum management role that holds real value.”

“Figuring out what your core values are and bringing more of what satisfies you into your life has nothing to do with improving your earning power or social status” says James “and everything to do with satisfying emotional needs.”  And some men do struggle with this; feeling pressure from society, family and even from within themselves to focus on the material aspect of their worth.  By discovering what your core values are – and not the ones you think you should have, or the ones that that other guy has – you’ll not only improve your personal life, but it can also lead to a more fulfilling work life.

“It’s a human instinct to keep striving for more” says James.  And let’s face it, it’s worked out pretty well for us so far as a species; space travel, self-driving cars, Twitter polls. But the problem with this default setting is that every time we reach a new goal, the baseline changes and we seek out more and better. While our instinct to strive might be key to our survival, it can also become really unhelpful, even damaging when it’s informed by skewed perceptions. James says a good place to start unravelling this instinct is to stop once in a while, and reflect on what you’ve achieved. Look back on those photos of good times, write a list of what you have achieved this year, instead of constantly focusing on what you’re yet to achieve or don’t yet have.

Another tip James has for those who feel trapped in a mind-set of discontent is to stop comparing yourself to others.  “While this is another natural instinct, our perceptions can get easily twisted when we relentlessly compare ourselves to others.” And let’s admit it, we all do it; whether it’s on Instagram or Reddit, at the gym or in the office, we tend to compare our worst bits to someone else’s highlight reel. “It’s an instinct that should serve us by helping us stretch ourselves” says James, “but it gets distorted very quickly and starts holding us back instead.”

And if that wasn’t enough, a global pandemic has changed ways of working for many, many men and James has seen the fallout of these changes first hand. “Organisations have needed more from their people to help them ride out the various commercial challenges this year” says James, “trying to do more with less people due to furlough”. The threat of change and redundancy has become an even greater source of stress, adding even more to the mental load. “Throw in concerns about home-schooling and the difficulties of working from home” says James, “and you’ve got the perfect storm.”  But there is a silver lining, James has witnessed more and more organisations finally understanding the link between employee well-being and performance and there have been some encouraging moves towards a more supportive and people-focused work culture.

Alongside all the larger social and personal problems caused by the pandemic, James says that when it comes to work, boundaries have become extraordinarily blurred. “We no longer have the buffer of the commute to shift from work to home mode, or even give us ‘permission’ to stop.  And with many now having to work more flexible hours around caring commitments, it’s open season on when emails are sent and meetings held. Equally, conversations such as performance issues, redundancy, furlough are happening to people through a screen in their home, and when the call finishes they are sat alone, isolated in their home without the separation, support and ritual that the workplace offers.”

James believes that we have a great opportunity now to keep all the positive changes that came out of 2020. James predicts that many will change their relationship with work; placing more value on achieving balance between the office and home and having a greater appreciation for collaboration, relationships and networking.

The world is changing rapidly, and perhaps the old instincts of ancient masculinities are not serving men as well today as they once did. Perhaps it’s time to recalibrate masculinity.  Collectively and as individuals, we can re-assess what it means to be strong and empowered, re-assess the role men have in family and community life and the expectation to provide. If we can create a future where men are supported to place more worth on friendships and meaningful connections and finding work that aligns with their core values, men might stop being their own worst enemy.

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