Managing Employee Fears About the COVID-19 Vaccine
March 16, 2021
As we witness the roll-out of COVID vaccinations cross the country, there remain concerns of shortages. Who will get the vaccine first? How does one get access? If getting the Pfizer vaccine which requires two shots, will the second shot be available? And so on. What there is no shortage of is varied messaging on the nature of the vaccine, accessibility, and even effectiveness. These fears are compounded by concerns of other COVID variants emerging. (https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2021-02-04/world-faces-around-4-000-covid-19-variants-as-researchers-explore-mixed-vaccine-shots)
It seems every day new articles and research comes out claiming the vaccine is effective, or it is not; claiming the new variants of the illness are concerning, or they are not; and even the medical field itself showing wide differences on the when, where and why to get the vaccine, or not. Such a landscape of confusion is fertile ground for fears to grow.
So how should leaders approach these issues?
- This is new, to all of us – Remember this is a vaccine produced in record-breaking timeframe, for a disease that has not been known to us before in this manner. Certainly, coronaviruses have been party of the human species journey for at least 10,000 years, but this particular version is a new wrinkle. As leaders it is critically important to place that in proper context, to explain that while science has made miraculous strides in combatting this virus in such short time, we still have more to learn. That helps level-set expectations and tempers fears.
- Provide timely and accurate information – Fear loves a vacuum. In the absence of good “intel”, humans will tend to speculate, and when we do that we tend to so in a negative (sometimes paranoid) direction. As leaders it is important to provide our employees with information that is credible, believable and based on the best available since at the time. This does not mean what we share today will be accurate in a month, as the science is evolving quickly. That is why the point above is critical to set the proper expectations, and then provide your employees information so they can be informed, and thus make informed decisions.
- Communicate clearly – Once you level set expectations and then find clear and credible information to disseminate, you must clearly communicate such to your company, employees and appropriate stakeholders. Communication should be clear, concise, and placed into context of “based on the best available evidence and information currently.” This allows you to later clarify any misunderstandings, and in the current context if needed reframe later as the medical field learns more about the disease and vaccinations.
- Communicate bi-directionally – In a landscape of potential fear, communication must go in both directions. Yes, it is important to address the above points I mention, but it should not occur in only one direction. When people are fearful, they do want timely and clear information shared with them, but equally important is they want their concerns to be heard and understood. So, open a dialogue with your employee so that leadership can understand those concerns and then direct interventions and policies accordingly.
- Set clear policy – To be clear I am not recommending any specific policy here, as such must be anchored to your company culture, your risk tolerance and your particular needs. Yet, whatever policy you have about requiring vaccinations or not, returning to work or not, when to return or not, travel restrictions, and so on, all should be clearly outlined and explained. In this instance I would not recommend frequent shifts in policy, unless new evidence or medical/CDC guidelines require such. Set a north star and follow that as long as it remains consistent with medical guidelines. Here, consistency goes a long way.
- Mobilize resources to build Resilience – Employees will show individual responses to uncertainty and fear. Some will seemingly show no impact, others will evidently struggle, and others may be experiencing a silent struggle. Further, all of these will occur on different trajectories, as some people will improve as others begin to struggle more. Thus, it is imperative to make available resources to help build resilience, tap into existing coping mechanisms and in some cases seek additional help.
Since onset of the pandemic, we at R3 have seen a dramatic increase in requests for these support services, include the following:
- Wellness Outreach – timely and proactive outreach calls by trained resilience coaches to check in on how people are coping and assist them to maximizing coping strategies.
- Facilitated Discussions – a group-format support discussion to allow employees to address fears, navigate cultural differences and share successful strategies for thriving.
- Disruptive Event Management (DEM) – onsite or virtual behavioral health coaching support to help individuals adjust to the emotional impact after a specific disruptive event impacts the workforce, and to promote maximizing a resilient adjustment.
- Behavioral Health Referral – in some cases an individual is emotionally struggling
at an intensity and/or duration such that linkage to a behavioral health provider is warranted. Be aware of resources in your area, through your EAP if appropriate and through covered insurance so that if this need arises resources can be mobilized quickly.
As leaders we have a responsibility to our employees to be stewards of their wellbeing during the pandemic, because they are our greatest asset, and more importantly it’s just the right thing to do. As we all navigate forward, remain mindful of these key takeaways to promote a more resilient and thriving work culture:
- Provide proper context for the challenges we are facing
- Provide timely and accurate information, based on best-known medical evidence at the time
- Communicate clearly and often
- Open a two-way dialogue with your employees so they can feel heard and understood
- Set clear policy
- Engage and make readily available behavioral health resources