Ask HR: How Can Organizations Offer Health and Wellness Benefits in 2021?

SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today. The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor’s answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Do you have an HR or work-related question you’d like him to answer? Submit it here.

My office will not be reopening for the foreseeable future. Before we shut down, the office gym was popular among employees. Since it’s no longer open, how can my company provide more health and wellness benefits? What are some examples? —Anonymous  

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Your question is spot on. A major part of creating a positive workplace culture is ensuring employers are supporting their workers both physically and mentally.

As we welcome a new year, there are several things employers can do to provide health and wellness benefits—and the good news is, some of them are likely already in place. After all, 58 percent of organizations offered general wellness programs in 2019.

Step one is to look at your health insurance and employee assistance programs (EAPs). Even in these strange times, I imagine there are plenty of virtual wellness options to choose from. While you mentioned your office gym is closed, EAPs may offer exercise and wellness classes like virtual boot camps or yoga as well as cooking and nutrition classes.

If you and your colleagues are missing the office camaraderie like so many of us are, you could also suggest fun, health-focused activities like a step contest or a healthy cooking competition.

Going further, I cannot highlight enough the importance of providing access to mental health services. EAPs often include resources that connect employees with a provider for their mental and emotional health needs. With 41 percent of workers feeling burned out as a result of the pandemic, these resources can help employees navigate these incredibly challenging times. 

If your employer doesn’t—or can’t—provide such a program, ask your HR team if they can compile resources and information from your local health department to share with employees.

If you really want to make your health and wellness program unique to your workforce, survey those who know it best: employees. An employee poll can reveal what sparks their interest.

I’m willing to bet you’ll get plenty of responses to help you determine the kinds of benefits best suited for the employees at your organization. Some may even have recommendations and referrals you might have overlooked.

Whatever you decide, don’t forget to measure employee engagement to help you refine your program throughout the year. Good luck on what I’m certain will be the start of a healthy journey for your organization!

Our company policy is that everyone must wear a mask while in the building, even at your desk. I have one supervisor who pulls his mask off while at his desk and has his nose uncovered when walking through the office. As the HR manager, I have spoken to him about the need for personal protective equipment. This seems to only last as long as HR is in the vicinity. How should I handle this situation? —Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: The answer is in your question—it’s your company’s policy for employees to wear a mask when inside the workplace. Unless there is a legitimate health or safety reason, or a sincerely held religious belief, everyone at the worksite should comply.

As an HR manager, you know this: Organizations must provide a reasonably safe environment for their workforce. But we can’t create a hazard-free workspace if there’s no follow-through. Policy is rule for a reason, and if employees aren’t getting the message, employers may need to reinforce measures to ensure a healthy worksite, up to and including disciplinary measures.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says employers can mandate employees to wear masks or other protective clothing, such as gloves and gowns, during a pandemic—something many employers are considering. In fact, 86 percent of organizations are implementing or considering the required use of personal protective equipment.

Masks are also recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and certain states and municipalities have their own mask requirement laws.  

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Accommodations may be necessary under the Americans with Disabilities Act for employees with disabilities, or a sincerely held religious belief may prevent an employee from wearing a mask.

It sounds like you’ve already taken the steps to speak to this employee. Continue to respectfully, but firmly, stress the importance of wearing a mask at the worksite. It’s not just a single employee that could be impacted, but the entire organization. The HR team can continue to communicate your company’s policy on masks through e-mails, signs around the office and verbally during meetings.

You mention that this person is a supervisor, but supervisors must lead by example. When leaders refuse to wear masks, it sends a message to the whole team that this behavior might be acceptable, when that’s not the reality of your company.

May your team remain safe in the new year!

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Written by HR Today

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