I’m in the process of writing a paper exploring the differences between men and women with respect to adjusting to work disability. Surprisingly (or not), there is little recent information on work disability differences between genders. What few studies I found studied women and not men, which means there is a real lack of information on the needs of men as they seek to return to work after injury, and with persistent pain.
I’ve been interested in this area for some time – I see more men than women to help them develop skills in pain management that can be used in the workplace. Time and time again I see men struggling to feel OK about the skills they can offer an employer, and equally struggling with the need to present a ‘strong’ exterior to their family and the community.
Here I’m going to float a few hypotheses – and no, I haven’t started any research into the area – yet!
Men and women have different degrees of flexibility when it comes to their career options over a lifespan. I think most women have at some point in their life made a decision about whether they will have a child, and what the impact of that will be on their career. At this juncture, women will have acknowledged that they do have a choice and that their life path can move in one way or another. I don’t think many men have this decision point available to them through their working life.
- My hypothesis is that men may find it more difficult therefore to think of their working life as something that is a choice.
If men have less opportunity to view working life as a matter of choice, they may invest more of their sense of self into their career (as compared with women). As a result of this, they may find it much more difficult to change their career as readily as women.
- My hypothesis is that men will find career choice requires much more than merely ‘which job will I do’ and they therefore find it requires much more soul-searching and require more emotional investment than women.
The loss of work-related functional abilities therefore is a huge life task for a man. It means much more than merely loss of ability, it also means loss of identity. Women often have socially sanctioned ‘alternative’ identities such as mother, caregiver, confidant that many men do not have. Not working in paid work is a socially viable option for a woman, while for a man it may represent a loss of self.
- My hypothesis is that much of the work of work rehabilitation for a man is about helping him regain a sense of self efficacy around his ability to identify work options that he feels he can sustain. Much of work rehabilitation for women may be about helping her identify the importance of returning to work, although self efficacy will also be important.
Men may find it more difficult to discuss their concerns about returning to work, and in particular acknowledging vulnerability and loss of concepts such as sense of self or self efficacy. These are not topics that men discuss often, while women frequently face returning to work after a break from the workforce, and there are many supportive networks and agencies for women returning to the workforce after having children for example.
- My hypothesis is that men may need specially targeted assistance to (1) identify their need for assistance to return to work and (2) develop a sense of self efficacy about the skills and reliability they can offer an employer.
Two areas that seem particularly important to men returning to work:
- That they can earn enough to support and protect their family
- That they can be reliable enough not to let their employer or colleagues down if/when they do return to work
If there is a delay in returning to work, the risk is that role replacement can occur – but for many men this represents a loss that they find difficult to countenance. If they’re close to retirement, they may start to redefine themselves as in ‘early retirement’, but if not – it can be a very difficult time.
I’m doing a literature search at present – but I’d love to hear your clinical stories about work disability for men. Let me know what’s going on in your part of the world for men. What has worked? What hasn’t?