MAKE A DIFFERENCE | workplace culture / mental health / wellbeing

Movember Founder JC On Covid-19, Suicide and Men’s Talk

“Don’t you hate the words social distancing?” JC, the charismatic co-founder of global men’s health charity Movember is talking to me via Zoom from his home. He’s been recuperating from a nasty case of Covid-19 that included a stretch in an intensive care unit.

When I conducted this interview during the summer of 2020, increasingly influential voices were warning of the psychological fallout from COVID-19. As the pandemic has unfolded, physical distancing, job loss, financial stress and strain on relationships remain factors that can be triggers of poor mental health. And men are particularly vulnerable. Globally, on average, even without the pressures of the pandemic, one man dies by suicide every minute of every day.

But we can make a difference. November, nick named Movember, is the perfect time to shine a spotlight on this and turn talk into action.

In this exclusive interview, JC gives practical tips on how to have conversations with men we care about who might be going through a tough time. He also shares valuable lessons he’s learned talking to both the C-suite and people around the globe about wellbeing.

How has Movember responded to the pandemic?

Our response has been two-fold. With close to 300 staff around the world, we were already working at the cutting-edge of communications, so shifting to home working wasn’t difficult. The challenge has been more around making sure everyone’s physical and mental wellbeing is OK. Some colleagues have been isolated living alone in flats, others living with a bunch of people they’re not used to. Others are dealing with pressure on relationships imposed by lockdown. It’s been so important for leadership to be there for everyone.

We also wanted to be there for our incredible supporters and to maintain our commitment to tackling the crisis in men’s mental health through investment in early intervention and prevention programmes. That’s why we’ve launched Movember Conversations. When you have to physically distance, staying socially connected is everything.

People know it’s important to have conversations to support others. But confidence and knowledge around how to do this with men is low. The temptation is to solve their problems. I’ve made that mistake myself. But that’s the worst thing you can do. The key is to check in and listen.

Our online Movember Conversations tool is based on R U OK’s ALEC conversation framework (Ask, Listen, Encourage action, Check in). It’s free and uses simulated conversations to explore and practise how anyone might navigate a difficult conversation with someone they care about.

The way that Movember talks about men’s health resonates all over the world. What’s your secret?

First of all, you have to recognise that you can’t talk ‘at’ men.  If you tell a man to do something, he’ll never do it. He’ll dig his heels in. If you actually talk to him in environments where he’s comfortable and have shoulder to shoulder conversations – not face to face – that’s a game changer.

You also have to remember that one lens doesn’t fit all. It’s important to work out how you can connect at the right level. One of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned from Movember scaling and growing across 21 countries across 27 different languages is that it’s actually not that complex. Just strip back to the basics and common sense will prevail. And never underestimate the power of humour.

Men need to have the shoulder to shoulder conversation. They need friendships, to stay socially connected and to check in with their mates. That’s the same world over, from Australia, Singapore, South Africa, UK, Europe to America.

What are your tips for engaging such a diverse range of men, across different age ranges and socio-economic backgrounds?

Movember works upstream rather than at crisis point. We’re about helping men to live happier, healthier, longer lives. With a focus on physical and mental wellbeing. If we can stop men falling from average mental health into poor mental health, we effect positive population change. We talk to men using language that resonates with them and we make social connections.

The ‘Legends of Lawndale’ initiative, is one of 14 “Making Connections for Mental Health and Wellbeing Among Men and Boys” community-led projects that we fund through the Prevention Institute. This brings together non-profits, schools, and young leaders in Chicago’s West Side. As a mentorship programme, it focuses on supporting young men and boys of colour who are growing up in a challenging environment where far too many men are dying too young.

We focus on going where men are and look to fund a variety of projects and interventions in these environments such as sport with “Breaking the Ice” Hockey in Canada and “Heads Together” New Zealand Rugby. Working with Formula 1, which has an audience of about 350 million globally, we talk to them through the F1 lens.

We work across sectors from Art, Music, Gaming to Fashion such as Net-a-Porter with our HIM (Health In Mind) Fund. And we fund Pie Club in the UK, where men meet up and make pies together. All of these are designed to help men to stay connected and have conversations. And that’s saved lives.

Then there’s mass participation projects like The Gentleman’s Ride. This is an annual motorbike event which in 2019 saw 125,000 amazing humans across 700 cities in 102 countries come together, dress dapper on their vintage styled bikes and talk shoulder to shoulder.

The key is to look at what the men are interested in. Tune in to what they are talking about and make sure what you are doing is relevant to them. That goes for employers who want to help colleagues too.

What advice have you got for employees lobbying their C-suite to support mental health and wellbeing?

I would say don’t just throw shots across the bow. Come up with realistic solutions, not only problems. Don’t set the conversation up as an ‘us versus them’ even if it might feel like that. It should be an ‘us’ and ‘we’ conversation.

If employers put mental and physical wellbeing as a key priority for their staff, to keep them mentally well, and put signposts in to help people, evidence shows one of the upsides of looking after your people – your most valuable resource – is that you will in turn see success for the company.

And if you’re afraid of losing your job if you talk to the C-suite about this – or they don’t want to listen to your solutions – perhaps you should look at whether there are better companies you could be working for that have the right values in place when it comes to staff. I know that’s easier said than done at the moment though.

What call to action would you like to send to our readers?

It’s great to see that more and more people are on the same page with mental health and wellbeing. Everyone is finally saying the same thing and using the right language. Having conversations saves lives and it’s OK not to be OK.

It’s key though to prevent people dropping from average to poor mental health and crucially this comes back to watching out for key triggers for men:

  • Leaving full time education
  • Relationship breakdown
  • Loss of a job
  • Becoming a Dad

The most important thing is that men check in with their mates. If any of these are happening to those around you, I urge you to check in with your mates. And if you need some tips on the right things to say and not to say, go check out Mo Conversations on Movember.com.

About the author

Claire Farrow is the Global Director of Content and Programming for the Mad World and Make a Difference Summits. She also drives the content for Make A Difference News. Claire is on a mission to help every employer – large, medium and small – get the insight, inspiration and contacts they need to make real impact on workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing in their organisation. She has been freelance for more than 15 years. During that time, she has had the honour of working with many leading publishers, including the New York Times