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Combat employee COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy with targeted messaging

Combat employee COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy with targeted messaging

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The COVID-19 vaccine is one of the most critical tools available to help us return to some semblance of normal. Employers recognize this, with many planning to play an active role in helping to get the word out: according to a January 2021 Business Group on Health survey, for instance, 80% of surveyed employers are planning to communicate with employees about the COVID-19 vaccine. To maximize impact of your communications, it’s important to factor in two key variables: Current employee readiness, and potential sources of resistance.

At first glance, it may seem that the decision of whether or not to get the vaccine is a simple yes or no. However, recent research conducted by Buck identified a range of potential responses, from hard-core pro-vaxxers who need no convincing (they are scouring every provider site to book an appointment) to the equally hard-core anti-vaxxers who are firm in their conviction NOT to get the vaccine, and who are very unlikely to be swayed by any messaging.

Who should you be talking to?

Given that, the groups you really need to target in your information campaign are the so-called “movable middle” and this includes:

  • those who are still unsure about getting the vaccine
  • those who have been affected by COVID themselves or in their families; and
  • those who are working remotely, feel isolated, and are stressed with work and family care pressures

Some of these individuals definitely want the vaccine, but they may need logistical support such as access to an appointment, transportation, or have concerns about cost and time away from work. Others are open to getting the vaccine but may currently be sitting on the sidelines for a variety of reasons, e.g., delaying until their preferred vaccine is available, or waiting for more information about which vaccine is deemed most effective against new variants. Finally, some are unsure about taking the vaccine, but could be influenced with the right encouragement, such as reminding them about the benefits their decision could have for their loved ones.

Addressing common sources of resistance

So what can you do to overcome potential barriers to getting the vaccine? The answer lies in tackling the nature of the resistance. The messages you’d use to address logistical issues are very different from the messages you’d use to address concerns about the vaccine itself; as we’ve all seen, there is significant misinformation and mistrust fueling resistance.

Some sources of resistance are easier to overcome than others. However, it is important to do everything we can to positively influence the take-up rate, because the sooner people get vaccinated, the sooner we achieve herd immunity.

Here are four engagement strategies to help you overcome vaccine resistance and talk effectively to employees:

Address practical issues

Make it as easy as possible for employees to get the vaccine by creating a “frictionless” experience – with the right information at their fingertips, employees may be more willing to get the shot.

  • Compile easy-to-follow information to educate employees about when and how to register for the vaccine. Tailor the information based on state and local protocols and inform employees where they can go with questions. Quick digital “pop up sites” and microsites work well for this purpose.
  • Promote additional resources, like information about local vaccination events and other resources based on the needs of your workforce, and ways to find free transportation to vaccination appointments.

Remove concerns about cost

Many Americans are facing increased financial strain due to pandemic-related economic conditions. Reassurance that the vaccine won’t result in another bill may be an attention-getting message for some employees: 55% of employees we recently surveyed believed that there would be out- of- pocket costs.

  • Remind employees that there is no cost associated with the vaccine itself.
  • Promote any support your company is offering to offset other costs. Some employers are offering paid time off, reimbursement for other expenses, or cash incentives to encourage vaccination.

Reduce fear about the vaccine experience

Let’s face it — getting a shot is not fun and there are legitimate concerns associated with it. Sometimes it takes an extra push to motivate people to take action.

  • Remind them about the down-side or potential consequences of not taking action – this is called regret aversion. In the case of the COVID vaccine, it could be reminding people that 5-10% of those who get COVID end up with long-term health impacts.
  • Promote examples where other people they know and trust have received the vaccine. This is called “social bias” and it builds from the power of community and modeling behavior.
  • Think about the influencers in your organization that you could highlight. If you are tracking employees who have received the vaccine, consider sharing the percentage of your workforce that is currently vaccinated and post updates as more employees receive the vaccine.

Tackle mistrust and misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccination head-on

Misinformation and mistrust can be one of the more challenging barriers to overcome. However, there are some tactics that can help:

  • Address the resistance head-on in plain language from trusted voices. Identify and partner with trusted, credible voices inside your organization (e.g., CEO; chief medical officer; leaders of employee resource groups). Have these trusted voices address concerns directly.
  • Share information that directly targets common concerns and misconceptions. For example, answer questions like “Isn’t COVID-19 just a bad flu?” and “The vaccine was developed so quickly; how can we know it’s safe?”
  • Promote credible resources. For instance: “There are a lot of myths about COVID-19. Here’s where you can learn the facts” or “Have questions? You’re not alone. These resources from the CDC can help.”

We’ve done this before

In the face of so many potential sources of resistance, the task of creating an effective engagement strategy about the COVID-19 vaccine may feel a bit daunting. However, if we look to history, we can find other examples of times when compelling communications have indeed shifted that “movable middle” and made a big impact on public health.

In the 1950s, nearly half of adult Americans were smokers. Today, that number has dropped to about 15%. One huge reason: the long-running, multi-faceted anti-smoking campaign which employed nearly all of the strategies we suggest above in one form or another.

While no outreach campaign will be successful with every individual, you can make an impact that meaningfully improves outcomes for your employees, your organizations and our society. But it is clear that the campaign needs to address people as individuals with different needs, if resistance is to be overcome.

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