After months of COVID-related mayhem that’s touched every aspect of work, there’s finally a bright spot in the form of approved vaccines that are in the midst of being approved and rolled out around the world.
Even though company and HR leaders have already navigated a number of pandemic-related trials over the past year—from keeping employees safe and healthy and moving operations remote to navigating productivity challenges—they’re gearing up for perhaps their most significant challenge yet: getting employees to buy into the vaccines.
It’s a tall order: Skepticism and hesitation surround the new vaccines coming out from Pfizer, Moderna and other makers. Recent surveys show as few as half of Americans are determined to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
“This is a complicated issue, with strong feelings for and against personally receiving the vaccine, but it is important to maintain an inclusive and safe culture at work,” says Jaime Klein, founder and CEO of consulting firm Inspire Human Resources.
The polarization means that employers—viewed as an ally in getting scores of Americans vaccinated—have significant work to do in order to convince employees to get vaccinated. And they’ll likely face backlash.
“There is going to be an uproar as decisions are made by these larger corporations, and it’s going to be interesting as it plays out,” says Justin Holland, CEO and founder of HealthJoy, a benefits company that works with employers. But it’s a decision that couldn’t be more important.
“This is probably the first time that HR is having to make a choice from the health and wellness perspective of their organization,” he says. “Companies have to make a stand. They have to decide what side of history they want to be on.”
Most experts agree on one thing: Employers play a vital role in helping promote COVID-19 vaccinations. They’re gatekeepers for the health and safety of employees. And without employees getting vaccinated against COVID-19, there’s no such thing as a safe return to work. As they have been for the past 10 months, offices are ripe for infection and rapid spread of the virus. Exposure is repeatedly shutting down workplaces, forcing deep cleans, quarantining and other measures to keep workers safe.
It’s a routine that employers can’t afford—in any sense of the word—for another year. And of course, there are liabilities for organizations if employees get infected with COVID-19 in the workplace.
“You’re never going to have a situation where you have employees in the office without a vaccine,” Holland says. “Imagine the amount of employees who could say, ‘I got COVID at work’—who’s going to want to deal with that?”
“The distribution of COVID vaccines will be critical to getting back to business as usual,” says Michael Thompson, president and CEO of the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, a nonprofit, purchaser-led organization that represents some 12,000 employers. “Employers have a strong stake in ensuring the success of these public health efforts and can be a real ally in making it happen effectively.”
So how do they do it?
It’s a lot about communication and facts. “Between anti-vaxxers and the amount of misinformation through social media, they’re going to have to communicate what is the factual information for the distribution of the vaccine,” says Holland, adding that HR and company leaders can offer employees consistent safety and efficiency data on the COVID vaccine. “The employer is playing a role being a credible fact source, and that’s very, very important.”
Klein adds that employers can amplify the voices of reputable medical experts and reinforce advice from organizations like the CDC say regarding the safety and benefits of receiving a vaccination and the risks of not receiving it.
“Employer efforts to educate on the merits of vaccines in general, and the COVID vaccination process specifically, can make a real difference to mitigate vaccine hesitancy,” Thompson adds. “Transparency and trust will be the key.”