No. 1 way to encourage workers to get COVID-19 vaccine? Education

As COVID-19 vaccines are being phased out to people all over the country, employers are left pondering how they can encourage workers to get vaccinated.

What’s the best course of action? It comes down to a robust communication strategy.

“The communication strategy you have behind this will make or break the success of the vaccine,” Ali Payne, organizational consultant at brokerage firm Holmes Murphy, said Wednesday during a webinar about COVID-19 vaccine considerations for the workplace. “If we really are in this together, then the workplace is a perfect place to think about how we can get this vaccine into the hands, or arms, of all of our employees and everyone in the U.S.”

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Experts say employers play a major role in encouraging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 to help drive up immunity and get society back to normal. Some organizations are expected to go further to mandate the vaccine for workers, while others are relying on incentivizing workers to get them. Dollar General, for instance, just announced it is offering workers an extra four hours of pay for getting the vaccine. However, employers face a big challenge in the scores of employees who are skeptical and reluctant to get vaccinated. A recent Gallup survey finds that about one-third of Americans do not plan to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Taking a moment to reach out to your employees and educate them is really vital because there’s a lot of fear, misinformation, a lot of people providing falsehoods,” said Dr. Scott Conard, chief medical officer at Holmes Murphy. He added he is very comfortable with the new vaccines from makers Pfizer and Moderna, and their efficacy and safety, and said employers should not hesitate to encourage workers to get them.

Related: HR’s next big job: Convincing employees to get COVID vaccines

Payne says when providing communication and education on the vaccine, it’s important to make sure the message you have around the vaccine is clear. “It starts with educating an employee on why they would want [the vaccine].” And while company leadership on the importance of the vaccine is vital, she says, it “shouldn’t just come from the top down. It should come from all of your leaders in an organization.”

It’s important employees understand the goal and why you’re asking them to get the vaccine. “Make it about them and less about you in that you want to care for their health, their safety and the benefits they will get from participating in the vaccine,” she said.

Employers also should provide multiple, regular communications on the vaccine, not just be one and done, Payne said. That’s especially important because there’s new information constantly on the vaccine, and “employers should share what they are learning.

“Education will really be the No. 1 area where we can help employees understand the importance of getting the vaccine.”

As for deciding whether to require employees to get the vaccine, experts on the webinar said employers will need to think about a number of factors.

“Certainly you want to think about the type of business you have. Obviously if you’re a hospital, school or nursing home, those types of facilities, your need for the vaccine is much different than somebody who has the flexibility to let people work from home,” said Ed Oleksiak, senior vice president of Holmes Murphy. “So the type of business is certainly critical.”

Related: Employers deciding if they’ll require COVID-19 vaccines

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Employers must also be prepared for employee objections based on religious or cultural beliefs. In guidance released last month, the Employment Opportunity Commission said employers can require that employees get vaccinated as a condition of going to work. However, they must be prepared to exempt employees with disabilities and religious objections. In those cases, an employer must offer a reasonable accommodation to the employee–such as working remotely or being reassigned–as long as the accommodation doesn’t cause “undue hardship” for the employer.

“We’re seeing a shift in people being accepting of it but at least 25% percent that won’t get it. So when you think about mandating it, expect about 25% to be concerned about it, Oleksiak said.

“While you can mandate it, it’s important you think through these issues. Is it that critical that you make every one of your workers get it?”

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.