What CEOs Can Do About Vaccine Hesitancy

New research suggests the 'moveable middle' can be swayed by effective workplace communications and engagement strategies—if the message starts at the top.

It’s easy to imagine that all Americans are eagerly anticipating their chance to be vaccinated against Covid-19. The reality is not quite so simple: The American workforce is sharply divided on vaccination. Despite the epidemiological, economic,and societal imperatives for getting employees vaccinated, almost a third of American workers plan to take a “wait and see” approach to getting the jab.

To understand the reasons for vaccine hesitancy and determine the messages that can move people to acceptance, Buck commissioned Leading Indicator Systems to conduct and analyze the results of a nationally representative online survey of 820 full-time workers employed by companies with at least 20 employees. Our survey data shows that while only 6% are hardcore anti-vaxxers, there are varying levels of anti-vaxxer sentiments within the rest of the employee population. They’re what we called the “movable middle,” and this includes:

• Those who are still unsure about getting the vaccine

• Those who want to wait and see what happens to others before getting vaccinated

• Those who are concerned about out-of-pocket costs or workplace time-off policies

• Those who are waiting for their preferred choice of vaccine

However, our research shows that these groups can be swayed by effective workplace communications and engagement strategies that encourage vaccination. The question is how to go about it.

“Requiring” vs. “encouraging” the vaccine

As the vaccine becomes more widely available, employers will have to weigh the pros and cons of requiring workers to be vaccinated against taking a more hands-off approach. Guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) allows that an employer can require employees to get vaccinated as a condition of employment, subject to a few exemptions. But employers contemplating a mandate should proceed with caution, carefully considering the impact on organizational culture as this may be perceived as corporate over-reach into a very personal decision. State-specific laws may also limit options.

Employee safety is a priority and defeating the spread of the virus in the workplace is paramount. While it looks like few employers will go the “mandatory vaccination” route, getting employees vaccinated will still be a priority to promote workplace health. Employee adoption is not a given: Some may need a nudge. But the good news is attitudes can be changed with the right information and messages.

Talking to employees who are hesitant about being inoculated requires understanding what messages will resonate and be most effective.

Remove barriers

Most employers are planning some form of a communication campaign to encourage their employees to get vaccinated, especially those in the “unsure” category. But misconceptions about the cost of getting vaccinated, uncertainty about company policies for time off, misinformation (and disinformation) about the vaccines themselves, and general nervousness about needles and potential side effects all feed into the fears of those still unsure.

We found that the most impactful message employers can push to the unsure is family and friends’ protection. There is also a need to dispel any beliefs that vaccination will be expensive. Although Covid vaccinations are free, 55% believe there is an out-of-pocket cost for getting vaccinated and overestimate the time away from work needed for the process. Solid information about the vaccination process, paid time-off for vaccination, and the small risk of side effects can help persuade those who are still hesitant.

Employers can also take measures to address practical issues that educate employees and promote resources, like local vaccination events and company incentives such as time-off policies. Communication should also focus on reducing fear about the vaccine experience. Remind them about the downside or potential consequences of not taking action. Promote examples where people they know and trust have received the vaccine.

Tackling mistrust and misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccination head-on by sharing credible information that directly targets common concerns and misconceptions can sway attitudes. 

It starts at the top

The pandemic has upended people’s lives, and we’re seeing increased distrust of employers – our survey shows 35% of employees don’t trust senior management to look out for their best interests and 27% believe that leadership is out of touch with the reality workers have experienced under Covid. These percentages jump significantly among those who indicate they are unsure about getting the vaccine: Distrust of senior management jumps to 48 percent, and 42 percent believe leadership is out of touch with their workforce.

CEOs and senior leaders have their work cut out for them, but building a workplace culture around trust is the key to getting employees back on-side. Being available to employees, speaking frankly about individual and company concerns about the virus and vaccinations, being flexible in corporate policies about time off and sick leave, and showing a genuine “positivity” about the future and the end of the pandemic is what executives can and should be doing.

This has worked before. History tells us that compelling engagement strategies can help shift the “moveable middle” about public health issues. Remember smoking? Smoking rates among adults peaked at about 45% in the mid-1950s and have steadily declined to current levels of about 15%, all due to good information, persuasive marketing campaigns, and societal influence.

While we can engage “influencers” within the company, such as the health officer, employee resource groups, union leaders and others, to act as vaccine advocates, it’s the message from the top that matters more than ever in keeping our workers and businesses safe and healthy.