COVID-19 vaccines in the workplace: Tips to minimise employee tensions

As offices reopen, not all employees will feel comfortable returning

COVID-19 vaccines in the workplace: Tips to minimise employee tensions

Locked down cities are finally reopening – but only for the double vaccinated. As a result, many employers are requiring employees be fully vaccinated and submit their vaccine status before returning to the office.

In Australia, big four accounting firms Deloitte, EY, and PwC are among those to have mandated the COVID-19 vaccine for staff wanting to work on site, while other are taking a ‘wait and see approach’. In New Zealand, the same pattern is beginning to emerge. Law firm Russell McVeagh, PwC and MediaWorks have all confirmed non-vaccinated employees and clients will be unable to enter the office.

It's a difficult path to navigate, and one that requires weighing health and safety against the freedom to choose. But what is clear is that whether or not colleagues have been vaccinated is playing on employees’ minds.

ELMO Software’s Q3 Employee Sentiment Index found that of the more than 1,000 workers surveyed, 58% said they would feel uncomfortable working alongside unvaccinated colleagues. In the US, vaccine tensions in the workplace have begun to bubble over. Research by Seyfarth at Work found an increasing number of workplace conflicts related to vaccination as employees returned to the office.

So how can HR be prepared for the inevitable tension between those who are vaccinated, and those who aren’t? HRD spoke to Neal Woolrich, HR advisor at Gartner, who shared his tips for tackling this tricky topic.

“I think there's quite a lot of employers are just sitting on the sidelines at the moment and waiting for the government to give some sort of direction,” Woolrich said.

“From what we've seen in the US when President Joe Biden announced in September that US companies with more than 100 employees would either have to have their employees vaccinated or test them on a weekly basis, that really drove a big lift in the number of companies that were prepared to introduce a mandatory vaccination policy.”

Read more: Woolworths, Coles and ALDI announce COVID-19 vaccine mandate for staff

Just this week, the WA government announced a sweeping mandate which is expected to cover more than a million workers across hospitality, mining, tourism and education. It follows a similar move by the Northern Territory and the Victorian governments as health authorities try to push vaccination rates higher.

Woolrich said like any change management process, HR leaders need to approach the issue with an open-source approach. That involves getting to the bottom of employees’ fears and concerns through regular pulse surveys and conversations between managers and their teams.

“Then, it's very much about education, so getting credible information from reliable sources of truth, like the state chief health officers and federal government. Use that to educate employees on the relative risks,” he said.

“If an employer is not prepared to go all the way with a mandatory vaccination policy, then really emphasise what the safety measures are on work sites that will minimise the risk of infection. Those could include cleaning protocols, social distancing, and capacity constraints.”

Read more: Lawyers warns TGA approval of rapid testing kits poses new challenge for employers

Woolrich said when putting together return to the workplace strategies, some organisations have created personas for different segments of their workforce to really get a deep understanding of their differing mindsets. There may be those who are double vaccinated and happy to return to the workplace, however there could also be immunocompromised employees or those who live with elderly relatives who are more at risk.

They have then mapped their journey as they come back into the office, identifying key touchpoints or scenarios that could cause anxiety. By working through those scenarios, HR leaders can formulate frequently asked questions that managers might need to deal with and tips for how to handle those conversations.

Like many of the hurdles of the last 18 months, there is no rulebook. No organisation will have a perfectly smooth return-to-work, but scenario planning and listening closely to employees will be vital to handle any speedbumps with care.

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