Men Are Reaching Burnout – Is Self-Care The Solution?

Wellness is gendered, say experts, with damaging consequences.

When I ask my partner, a 32-year-old man who works in sales, what he does for self-care, he doesn’t have a clue what I’m talking about. He’s not the only one.

Zak Edwards, 45, is the managing director of an online gift store. “I’ve never heard of it before,” he tells me in an email, before we discover Edwards has quite the extensive self-care routine. “I play lots of sport, go to the gym, play in a band and like activity holidays. But then I also work at relaxing. I meditate daily, read a lot and I’m learning to play the piano. I’m also into boxsets and documentaries.”

If self-care is a fancy label for taking an active role in protecting your wellbeing and happiness, particularly during stressful times, then plenty of us are at it.

There are 16 million posts on Instagram tagged #selfcare and App Store editors first named it as a major trend at the start of 2018. The term can be applied to simple daily lifestyle choices such as eating healthily and getting into good sleep or exercise habits, but it quickly branches out to mindfulness, yoga and other relaxation techniques, engaging with hobbies that help you de-stress and even managing your health – yes, buying lozenges for a sore throat counts.

Anecdotally, self-care is a term that’s more popular among women than men. But what is often illustrated on social media with flat lays of beauty products, pastel-hued quote cards, piles of sunlit books and shots of people doing yoga on Bali beaches, appears to be finding a new audience.

“I don’t think enough men even consider self-care, let alone practise it,” says Kenny Mammarella-D’Cruz, who runs a series of men’s talking groups called MenSpeak and believes that wellness is gendered, with serious implications for men. “The figures tell us that more men die by suicide, commit more crimes, have a higher addiction and abuse rate, can more easily isolate – and so many lives could be saved if only men talked about it.”

In the UK, men are three times as likely to take their own lives than women. Self-care isn’t a solution to an issue as complex as male suicide, of course, but finding strategies to boost men’s mental wellbeing certainly has its part to play. Even the NHS recognises the power of self-care with Professor Jane Cummings, chief nursing officer for England, saying it is “vitally important”.

One person trying to address the gender divide when it comes to wellness is Martin Robinson, editor and founder of The Book of Man, who runs a support network offering advice and inspiration to men “in a time of great change”. Key to his approach is getting men to question masculinity and what it means to be a man.

“Traditionally men haven’t been equipped in the right way – certainly men have been conditioned to not value communication or emotional openness in the same way as women,” says Robinson, who encouraged men to open up in his weekly Sunday self-care sessions in London, part of a three-month Festival of New Masculinity.

“They’re about having some brunch and maybe some beer,” he explains, “so it’s not the healthiest. But they’re also about gathering to talk about wellbeing issues that men don’t usually discuss. We make the format fun and accessible, knowing there’s still a way to go before such discussions are the norm.”

One such meet-up saw Professor Green discuss his love of candles and speak about his self-care rituals. “For men in the public eye to talk about such things would have been unthinkable 10, maybe even five, years ago,” Robinson says.

Professor Green
Professor Green

When a male grooming brand like Gillette rebrands its slogan from “the best a man can get” to “the best men can be”, it could read as a sign of change. While the strong reactions to this campaign focused around issues of toxic masculinity, they also showed that male wellness and self-care is still highly contested ground.

Social and cultural education can be a major barrier, says Robinson – some men don’t want to appear “too girly” or be seen to “take care of themselves”. That said, he believes we are witnessing a shift in the way society previously boxed off certain activities as being exclusively male or female. “It’s traditionally been way more acceptable for women to pursue, say, yoga and meditation,” he says, whereas the ways that men are socialised to stay fit and healthy tend to revolve around more solitary activities like running, weight-lifting or the gym.

Tim Latham, 59, from Lincolnshire, has felt the impact of this. “Earlier in my life when my thoughts have turned towards fitness I’ve tended towards ‘blasting some exercise out’, maybe running, rowing or lifting some weights,” he explains. “But for me these have been highly ineffective approaches.”

“My suspicion is that some of the approaches traditionally aimed towards women are better for all of us, particularly as we get older."”

- Tim Latham

Latham is a partner at Unretired, a company that helps people plan for a healthy retirement. After speaking to wellness experts for business purposes, he swiftly realised he personally needed to take a new approach to his own self-care. “My suspicion is that some of the approaches traditionally aimed towards women are in fact better for all of us, particularly as we get older,” he says. “Yoga, pilates, walking and swimming – they tend to be enjoyable, can have a social element and generally don’t result in crippling pain the next day.”

That social element is crucial, especially when the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness estimates that eight million men (of all ages) in the UK feel lonely at least once a week, with nearly three million reporting it as their daily reality.

There is a growing awareness that how you care for your physical self also impacts your mental wellbeing – multiple studies have confirmed that exercise can reduce and, in some cases, prevent depression. Author Matt Haig, whose memoir ‘Reasons To Stay Alive’ detailed his struggles with mental illness, has been incredibly vocal about this – specifically how yoga helps ease his anxiety.

Matt Haig
Matt Haig

“Anxiety will tighten your chest, it’ll hunch your shoulders and yoga reverses all that,” he told HuffPost UK in a 2018 interview. “Over the years I’ve understood that... the line we draw between the body and the mind is like a false line. I think yoga is one of the things that bridges that.”

This approach – what works for body and mind, rather than for one gender or another – is core to Maude, a US company selling sexual-wellness products that are marketed based on anatomical needs. “Sex and gender are so conflated,” says the brand’s co-founder Eva Goicochea. “Sexual wellness is one of the categories in wellness that is the most outdated.”

Updating definitions of wellness makes sense not only from a business point of view, but also because it’s more inclusive of those who don’t conform to gender norms. “The things that connect us and our commonalities are nothing to do with our gender,” adds Goicochea, who is clearly doing something right – the average Maude product rating is 4.63 out of five with a customer base that ranges from students to octogenarians.

When I put a call out on social media asking for men to share their self-care routines with me, a clear pattern soon emerges: a lot of men are reaching the point where they’re totally overwhelmed by work pressures but don’t have anything in place to help them cope. All of a sudden, something snaps.

“Some men think just changing the subject or a brisk walk will always be the answer."”

- Jivan Dempsey, psychologist

Psychologist and life coach Jivan Dempsey says plenty of her male clients are at breaking point when they attend therapy, yet are often “still not ready to admit they have a problem”. As such, their journeys to wellness take longer. Often these clients are incredibly reluctant to seek help and only arrive at her door prompted by a partner or because they have experienced a “breakdown moment” – for example, screaming at the kids.

Sadly, many of Dempsey’s male clients are embarrassed to admit they need the support. “It’s shameful somehow when they should just ‘man up’ and ‘get over it’,” she says. “They fear ridicule by their friends and family, and also fear stigma attached to mental health and talking therapies as a solution. Somehow they think just changing the subject or a brisk walk will always be the answer.”

The good news is that self-care can play a part in keeping burnout at bay. It’s something designer Andy Boothman, 44, from Cambridge, learned but only after feeling completely overwhelmed. “I didn’t take a proper holiday, anything more than bank holidays, for over a decade – and that didn’t end well,” says Boothman, who now practises self-care in multiple ways, from regular dog walks and cycling, to pilates and barre classes.

Marketing director Richard Brady’s self-care habits disappeared completely last year when he went through a tough time with the family business. Since then, the 38-year-old from North Wales has tried to stick to a daily routine and says he’s much happier for it. His self-care rituals involve dog-walking, practising mindfulness and journalling (with gratitude a part of that), making a nice coffee before work, eating healthily, reading and listening to podcasts – all of which he builds into his working day.

One way to get more men talking about wellness – and indeed practising it – is making them feel part of the conversation, which means tackling the issue of shame. This doesn’t just manifest in meet-ups. It’s something new male wellness brands are tapping into, too. George Pallis, CEO and founder of Manual, which sells erectile dysfunction and hair loss products, tells HuffPost UK that he’s witnessed a shift in the way men approach self-care, particularly when it comes to their health. “Masculinity is changing,” he says. “It’s no longer about looking buff and a stiff upper lip. Men are becoming more emotional.”

The shift is slow though. Recent research by Manual found 64% of men fear being judged, so bury their heads in the sand rather than seeking help – and one third of men prefer to ignore a problem altogether. “Men find it harder to open up, discuss problems with peers or a health professional, and seek help,” says Pallis, who set up Manual after seeking help because he’d let his own health spiral out of control.

“They are more worried about being judged than women are, hence why they like to search for solutions online,” he adds. When it comes to erectile dysfunction specifically, 52% of men would rather break up with their partner, shop anonymously on the dark web for a solution or avoid sex all together before seeking help, research found.

Also entering the market of wellness for “modern men” is Hims, which has been likened to a male version of Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand Goop – in its first week of sales in November 2017, the online store generated more than $1 million, and revenue has continued to increase since. Products include shampoo to boost hair growth, chewable vitamins, face serums and, as with Manual, erectile dysfunction products, all of which come packaged in plain brown cardboard boxes and clear plastic bottles with minimalist labelling and ‘hims’ – lower case, of course – in a sans serif font.

The brand is reaching a younger audience than erectile dysfunction products have historically been marketed to, with clever materials: photos of phallic cactuses and hipster types juxtaposed against neutral backgrounds. The message: taking control of your health has never been cooler.

With all these brands jumping on the men’s wellness bandwagon, we’re also seeing male celebrities and influencers championing a positive approach to issues of male self-esteem – just witness the warm response to actor John Travolta embracing his baldness and the wild popularity of Queer Eye’s Fab Five, whose makeovers use grooming, cooking and talking to promote a more holistic approach to life, regardless of our age, body, sexuality, religion, race – or gender.

“We’re only scratching the surface of the many issues that men have suffered through in silence or spent nights Google-searching"”

- Andrew Dudum

Hims founder Andrew Dudum says one of the reasons he’s setting up shop in the UK is because British men face the same stigmatisation around men’s health that he has seen play out in the US. “If you look at some of the comments and coverage that celebrity males get in the UK press for going bald, you can only imagine the impact that has on general male consumers and readers,” he says. “We’re only scratching the surface of the many issues that men have suffered through in silence or spent nights Google-searching.”

The Duke of Cambridge is another prominent figure leading by example. His decision last year to shave his head gained international media attention and inadvertently prompted men to open up about their own experiences of male pattern baldness – considered a taboo topic for years.

It’s clear things are moving in the right direction and there are a number of reasons for this: brands are finally plugging men’s wellness and the importance of it; celebrities are promoting self-care and mental health; more men are being encouraged to talk about the issues they face and seek support; and gender stereotypes, ingrained for generations, are being questioned. Psychologist Jivan Dempsey says the work of royals-led Heads Together campaign and mental health charities such as Mind and Movember have started a “slow revolution” which means men, and society as a whole, are starting to see mental health differently.

One day wellness may cease to be a gendered issue. In the meantime, we need to get more men actively taking care of themselves. I’m going to speak to my partner about it, for sure. Let’s make that our unified goal in 2019 and beyond.

A Simple Self-Care Checklist

  • Brush your teeth twice daily.
  • Take a shower.
  • Exercise – even if it’s for 10 minutes.
  • Drink some water.
  • Eat three meals in a day, trying to avoid ultra-processed foods where possible.
  • Go for a walk or get outside on your lunch break.
  • Do some yoga or meditate after work. There are lots of apps which can help – here are some our readers recommend.
  • Talk about your problems with someone close.
  • Write a to-do list so you don’t have too many thoughts racing around your head.
  • Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day to get into a good routine. If you can, go to bed before midnight.

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@themix.org.uk
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.