While numerous factors outside of work impact individual mental health, employers can make a difference with a few key steps. Photo via Getty Images

In 2023, it is imperative leaders keep the wellbeing of their workforce at the forefront of their minds.

According to an October 2022 publication from the McKinsey Health Institute, 59 percent of the global workforce report having at least one mental health challenge either now or in the past. These challenges not only threaten employee wellbeing but can also impact performance by a reduction in productivity.

Numerous factors outside of work impact individual mental health. Nonetheless, employers can make a difference with a few key steps, such as properly training management to mitigate toxic behaviors, prioritizing inclusivity and providing mental health resources.

Management training

To start, leaders need to prepare their managers to set the tone for employees. Frontline managers can have a large influence on employee wellbeing through their daily interactions with their teams. Even if organizations offer a host of mental health benefits, employees might not take advantage if their managers do not buy in. There is no substitute for the genuine care and concern that a supportive manager offers their employees, and they can tell the difference when they are authentically cared for or not.

Although the vast majority of managers have good intentions toward their employees, managers also may hold themselves and their teams to high standards without realizing the impact on mental health. Managers should receive training in how to respect work-life balance, help employees prioritize their duties, and create and maintain a supportive, positive work environment. These things may not have been on the radar for management in the past, but it is now the norm to lead with the wellness of the whole person in mind.

Beyond helping employees balance their lives, managers also need support in balancing their own, particularly to avoid burnout. Employees and managers may both face pressure to perform, and leaders need to make sure mental health initiatives for junior employees do not simply transfer excessive workloads to their supervisors. To accomplish that, train managers in time- and stress-management techniques and keep the lines of communication open with the executive team. Staying in tune with the pulse of wellness at work requires open communication and the commitment to support work-life balance by all members of the organization.

Prioritize inclusivity

Since 2020, inclusivity has become a bigger and bigger part of the conversation about workplace culture. The impact of a discriminatory workplace on mental health can be profound. When employees experience or indirectly experience discrimination in the workplace, their overall wellbeing suffers, with engagement and satisfaction decreasing as well, according to a 2021 survey from Gallup. The good news is most workplaces already have policies in place to prevent and report discriminatory practices.

However, a truly inclusive workplace will go beyond anti-discrimination policies to create an affirmative environment where employees can fully embrace their identities. Steps to promote inclusivity include celebrating holidays of various cultures, creating opportunities for employees to discuss their heritage and traditions, organizing relationship-focused exercises and offering educational opportunities in the workplace. To promote unity in the workplace, leaders should take care to discourage the formation of cliques and ensure all employees feel welcomed and not judged or mistreated by coworkers. Valuing diversity and honoring the individual drives the culture of tolerance and acceptance, which promotes a harmonious and productive work environment and team.

Provide mental health resources

To promote mental health and wellness, employees need access to the right resources and the knowledge to navigate those resources. In many cases, employees with the biggest mental health challenges may also face the most obstacles in receiving care. For employers offering health care benefits, employees may need training on how to find mental health practitioners in their area. What is more, employees accustomed to inconvenient appointment times or long wait lists for therapists may benefit from learning about online therapy platforms, which can offer care sooner and outside of typical work hours.

Many employers also choose to offer an employee assistance plan, or EAP, which can offer further mental health programs, free of charge. Despite their relevance to employees in need, EAPs are often overlooked and underutilized, making it even more necessary for managers or HR to proactively reach out to employees and educate them about their EAP benefits.

For organizations without the budget to provide health care benefits or EAPs, their leadership should investigate free or low-cost mental health resources in their region. In many cases, local government will provide free access or subsidies for mental health care. Nonprofit organizations may also offer free programs for those meeting eligibility requirements.

Employers should keep in mind employees may feel afraid to use mental health benefits for fear of stigma. While managers should be careful not to intrude on employees’ personal lives, managers can still gently offer caring support to employees who show signs of struggling with mental health, including chronic tardiness, absenteeism, low mood and a sudden change in personality or work performance. The ability to know if a behavior is out of the norm for an employee, the manager needs to have built a relationship with them and to care enough to notice the change.

As employees continue to face mental health challenges in their personal lives, employers can be part of the solution by educating managers, emphasizing inclusivity and offering mental health resources and support. Being a caring human being goes a long way, even at work.

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Karen Leal is a performance specialist with Houston-based Insperity, a provider of human resources offering a suite of scalable HR solutions available in the marketplace.

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Houston organizations launch collaborative center to boost cancer outcomes

new to HOU

Rice University's new Synthesis X Center officially launched last month to bring together experts in cancer care and chemistry.

The center was born out of what started about seven years ago as informal meetings between Rice chemist Han Xiao's research group and others from the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Baylor College of Medicine. The level of collaboration between the two teams has grown significantly over the years, and monthly meetings now draw about 100 participants from across disciplines, fields and Houston-based organizations, according to a statement from Rice.

Researchers at the new SynthX Center will aim to turn fundamental research into clinical applications and make precision adjustments to drug properties and molecules. It will focus on improving cancer outcomes by looking at an array of factors, including prevention and detection, immunotherapies, the use of artificial intelligence to speed drug discovery and development, and several other topics.

"At Rice, we are strong on the fundamental side of research in organic chemistry, chemical biology, bioengineering and nanomaterials,” Xiao says in the statement. “Starting at the laboratory bench, we can synthesize therapeutic molecules and proteins with atom-level precision, offering immense potential for real-world applications at the bedside ... But the clinicians and fundamental researchers don’t have a lot of time to talk and to exchange ideas, so SynthX wants to serve as the bridge and help make these connections.”

SynthX plans to issue its first merit-based seed grants to teams with representatives from Baylor and Rice this month.

With this recognition from Rice, the teams from Xiao's lab and the TMC will also be able to expand and formalize their programs. They will build upon annual retreats, in which investigators can share unpublished findings, and also plan to host a national conference, the first slated for this fall titled "Synthetic Innovations Towards a Cure for Cancer.”

“I am confident that the SynthX Center will be a great resource for both students and faculty who seek to translate discoveries from fundamental chemical research into medical applications that improve people’s lives,” Thomas Killian, dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences, says in the release.

Rice announced that it had invested in four other research centers along with SynthX last month. The other centers include the Center for Coastal Futures and Adaptive Resilience, the Center for Environmental Studies, the Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies and the Rice Center for Nanoscale Imaging Sciences.

Earlier this year, Rice also announced its first-ever recipients of its One Small Step Grant program, funded by its Office of Innovation. The program will provide funding to faculty working on "promising projects with commercial potential," according to the website.

Houston physicist scores $15.5M grant for high-energy nuclear physics research

FUTURE OF PHYSICS

A team of Rice University physicists has been awarded a prestigious grant from the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Physics for their work in high-energy nuclear physics and research into a new state of matter.

The five-year $15.5 million grant will go towards Rice physics and astronomy professor Wei Li's discoveries focused on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), a large, general-purpose particle physics detector built on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, a European organization for nuclear research in France and Switzerland. The work is "poised to revolutionize our understanding of fundamental physics," according to a statement from Rice.

Li's team will work to develop an ultra-fast silicon timing detector, known as the endcap timing layer (ETL), that will provide upgrades to the CMS detector. The ETl is expected to have a time resolution of 30 picoseconds per particle, which will allow for more precise time-of-flight particle identification.

The Rice team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas. Photo via Rice.edu

This will also help boost the performance of the High-Luminosity Large Hadron Collider (HL-LHC), which is scheduled to launch at CERN in 2029, allowing it to operate at about 10 times the luminosity than originally planned. The ETL also has applications for other colliders apart from the LHC, including the DOE’s electron-ion collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York.

“The ETL will enable breakthrough science in the area of heavy ion collisions, allowing us to delve into the properties of a remarkable new state of matter called the quark-gluon plasma,” Li explained in a statement. “This, in turn, offers invaluable insights into the strong nuclear force that binds particles at the core of matter.”

The ETL is also expected to aid in other areas of physics, including the search for the Higgs particle and understanding the makeup of dark matter.

Li is joined on this work by co-principal investigator Frank Geurts and researchers Nicole Lewis and Mike Matveev from Rice. The team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas.

Last year, fellow Rice physicist Qimiao Si, a theoretical quantum physicist, earned the prestigious Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship grant. The five-year fellowship, with up to $3 million in funding, will go towards his work to establish an unconventional approach to create and control topological states of matter, which plays an important role in materials research and quantum computing.

Meanwhile, the DOE recently tapped three Houston universities to compete in its annual startup competition focused on "high-potential energy technologies,” including one team from Rice.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.