Curating the week in wellness June 21–25, 2021: Return-to-work showdowns loom, LGBTQ inclusion efforts, and more

The week’s essential content and fresh industry pickings for those dedicated to employee well-being.

By Robby Brumberg      @robbybrumberg      

Greetings to you, wellness, HR and comms pros.

We hope you enjoy this week’s collection of thought-provoking articles, savvy tips and takeaways.

As always, please get in touch with any ideas, suggestions or feedback on how we can serve you better. We are grateful for all the excellent work you do!

1. Return-to-work battles start to heat up.

CNN lists companies that are “rushing workers back into the office,” as well as those taking a more flexible approach amid lingering COVID-19 threats. As your company forges its own path forward, make sure you’re listening closely to what employees have to say—and see how your policies compare with the following:

CNN notes that Apple has asked workers to return to their offices at least three days a week come September, while Bank of America and Morgan Stanley want butts in seats by Labor Day. Citibank, Twitter, Google, AmEx and Facebook are all taking a more flexible tack—for now, at least.

It will be interesting to see how these remote-work policies evolve as the pandemic abates. In the meantime, make sure you follow through on promises made to employees—lest you ruin trust and prompt an exodus of top talent toward the exit.

2. Are vaccine mandates worth the risk?

So far, the law is firmly on the side of employers choosing to mandate employee vaccinations. Despite a flurry of lawsuits protesting vaccine requirements—including a high-profile case of 117 Texas hospital workers refusing to get the shot—none have so far been successful. As the judge in the Texas case explained: “This is not coercion … The public’s interest in having a hospital capable of caring for patients during a pandemic far outweighs protecting the vaccination preferences.”

However, as ABC News notes, these sorts of showdowns are far from over. In the meantime, employers should focus on providing reasonable accommodations for the skeptics in their midst.

“The central question raised by the suits is whether employers have the power to mandate vaccines from employees. Under Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines, the answer is yes, if the right accommodations are made. Employers have the power to set vaccine mandates for various diseases — including flu, measles, mumps, and in May the EEOC said employers can also require staffers to be inoculated against COVID-19. However, workplaces must make accommodations to workers who decline the vaccine due to health conditions or a religious belief. Accommodations might include allowing an unvaccinated employee to wear a face mask and social distance while at work, working a modified shift, getting periodically tested for COVID-19 or being given the opportunity to telework or accept a reassignment, according to the guidance.”

3. Creating a more welcoming, supportive environment for LGBT staffers.

Saying your culture is “inclusive” doesn’t make it so. According to Employee Benefits News, “employers must create tangible policies and workplace norms that create affirming and supportive environments.” You can create a more welcoming workplace by:

  • Elevating pronoun visibility.
  • Investing in operationally inclusive technology with non-binary classification systems.
  • Updating company policies to eliminate gendered language.
  • Establishing and supporting LGBTQ employee resource groups.
  • Creating and promoting a culture of allyship.

As the NFL lauds its first active player to come out, and with Laurel Hubbard set to compete as the first transgender Olympian this summer, these are great springboards toward more substantive conversations at your workplace.

You can also take inspiration from how companies such as T. Rowe Price are supporting its LGBTQ workers.  

4. Wellness takeaways from the ‘AmaZen’ flap.

HR Dive offers lessons from the more cringeworthy elements of Amazon’s WorkingWell program, including the “AmaZen” mindfulness kiosks.

The piece writes:

“None of these details saved AmaZen from internet ridicule. The Guardian uncovered social media posts describing it as a “Despair Closet.” New York Magazine opined that “Even a Dystopia Would Wince” at it.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with mindfulness, meditation or trying to give employees a respite from workplace stress. The bigger issues at play are about providing healthy working conditions—and offering meaningful benefits that workers actually want.

HR Dive writes:

“Whether or not Amazon is looking to counter criticisms with AmaZen, the reality is that its competitors also have made investments that seek to address mental health issues. Walmart, perhaps Amazon’s most significant competitor in the retail space, rolled out expanded no-cost counseling services to U.S. store associates and their families weeks prior to the announcement of WorkingWell. Last year, Target rolled out free counseling sessions as well.”

It continues:

“But providing access to wellness programs, including counseling services and concepts like AmaZen, are only a piece of what organizations can do to address employees’ well-being issues, said Good. He added that employers need to recognize that the way employees are treated at work is becoming a ‘massive public health concern,’ and that managers also have a role to play in recognizing mental health concerns that employees are presenting. Good also noted that at a fundamental level, employers, including Amazon, are struggling to deal with the tension between meeting their production goals and providing the well-being support their employees need. ‘I assume Amazon does what it does and behaves the way they have because they have a budget to protect,’ he said. ‘The only way they know how to do that is to drive [employees] really hard toward those outcomes.’”

Something to keep in mind before you go all in on nap pods or other band-aid approaches toward employee wellness.

5. Do wellness programs get real results?

The Washington Post reports on a workplace wellness study in cooperation with BJ’s Wholesale Club, and the findings were mixed.

WaPo writes:

“Some studies have suggested that these programs indeed result in better worker health and lower health-care costs. But how reliable are these results? A new study we conducted, with the cooperation of BJ’s Wholesale Club, was sobering. We randomly assigned some BJ’s worksites to adopt a new wellness program and tracked employees at sites with and without such programs. After nearly three years, we didn’t see any substantial effects on employment outcomes (such as fewer sick days), health-care spending or objective health measures. We did find some improvements in self-reported health behaviors. For example, the wellness program increased the share of employees who reported actively managing their weight by about 8.7 percentage points and the share of those who said they got regular exercise by about 11 percentage points. But we saw no effects on blood pressure, diabetes or obesity.”

Whether your wellness programs “succeed” boils down establishing expectations and objectives.

The piece writes:

“Does this mean that wellness programs are a waste of money? It depends on what you want to get out of them. Employees seemed to value the benefit, had heightened awareness of the importance of healthy behaviors and were trying to implement them. If employers are seeking to add benefits that workers value (or attract workers who value those benefits), the programs may be worth it. But if the goal is to save money by reducing health-care costs and absenteeism, or to improve chronic physical health conditions, the evidence so far is underwhelming. Whatever their positive effects, wellness programs don’t seem to be doing much to alleviate the nation’s persistent health problems.”

6. Peloton gets into the corporate wellness game.

The high-end exercise equipment company has launched a corporate wellness program, CNBC reports, explaining:

“Businesses that sign up will be able to offer employees subsidized access to Peloton’s digital fitness membership and its high-end cycles and treadmills. Peloton said its corporate partners will receive access to tailored features such as team tagging and group exercises that encourage accountability and foster bonding with colleagues. Peloton will also assist corporate partners with outfitting office workout spaces.”

CNBC reports that Samsung, Wayfair and SAP have already signed up, with more sure to come as companies try to lure employees back into the office.

7. Emerging DE&I trends and best practices.

How can companies sustain momentum on inclusion efforts?

LinkedIn has announced it will pay ERG leaders $10,000, and many are seeking external expertise to hone DE&I messaging and pursue progress.

If you feel you’ve lost the plot, or are unsure how to proceed, National Law Review offers a five-step framework to get your inclusion efforts back on track:

  • Conduct a DE&I assessment.
  • Implement “race/gender-neutral” DEI efforts.
  • Focus on pay equity, monitoring and benchmarking.
  • Adopt enhanced EEO policies and related training.
  • Develop an authentic DEI narrative.

8. How to report on CSR, ESG progress.

For a bit of inspiration, check out Invesco’s recent CSR report. You can also read the highlights of the report here.