Workplace vaccine hesitancy: 3 techniques to navigate it

The boss says: “Vaccination is now mandatory, you must get vaccinated.”

The employee says: “I refuse to get vaccinated.”

Where do we go from here?

 

In my work I’m starting to see conflict around Covid-19 vaccination in workplaces, particularly in the healthcare sector. Now that the government has announced mandatory vaccination for aged care workers, it will become more and more important for managers and employers to know how to navigate vaccine hesitancy among their staff.

While the legislation makes the outcome non-negotiable, the path and the context are all-important. Some employees may come to the decision that their belief is more important than their role and move on (although the evidence from overseas so far suggests this will be a small number). For those who make the pragmatic decision to get vaccinated despite their beliefs, how do we help them be comfortable with that, and avoid lingering resentment and the feeling of having been wronged or bullied?

The skills we need are the skills we always need to foster a workplace environment of psychological safety: respect for diversity, empathy and true listening.

 

1. Be curious, empathetic and respectful

This is a highly divisive time and an emotive issue. It can be a challenge for all of us to understand the alternative view. If there was ever a time for leaders to step up and create an environment of empathy and respect, it’s now. There will be employees struggling to accept that their self-determination has been taken away from them – it’s important that we recognise that and help them find comfort.

For me, the best affirmation to use as a guide is: “Be curious”. Put judgement aside and lean into the conversation to better understand.

I think of this as a diversity issue. It’s a time when peoples’ diverse lived experience comes to the fore. People’s attitudes and beliefs are based on what they have lived – their health history and that of those close to them for example, or how they have experienced Covid-19 so far. In a workplace, we don’t always have this background, and listening curiously and with empathy can help us understand and respect a stance which initially strikes us as unreasonable.  

Leaders must model this behaviour for the good of workplace health during this time – and beyond. We need to build people’s resilience to be comfortable with difference, no matter the situation. This is an opportunity to articulate what desirable, productive tension looks like – something to be embraced as it fosters the diversity of thought that contributes to innovation, creativity and solutions.

 

2. Open a dialogue and really listen

Often leaders are concerned that hot-topic conversations may create disharmony and distraction, undermining productivity. But to get through this tricky period, we need workplace leaders to open a dialogue and allow constructive conversations of difference to emerge.

Especially with such an emotive issue, it’s imperative to make space for an intentional, authentic and decluttered exchange. Showing respect for a diversity of thought means allowing those views to be aired. Be prepared to be challenged, be prepared to be uncomfortable, to sit with that and reach out from that space.  

For anti-vaccination employees being required to vaccinate to keep their jobs – they’re right, their self-determination has been taken away from them. We must name it – and then we must help them negotiate that dilemma. Allowing people to speak openly about it is the first step.

 

3. Be aware of unconscious bias and find gentle ways to persuade

One of the opportunities leaders have is to provide employees who may be ambivalent and uncertain with the facts, gently and respectfully.

This interesting article reminds us of the role that unconscious bias plays in forming our opinions. In this case, ‘safety bias’ means that bad is stronger than good. So, 5 deaths linked to a vaccine is stronger than 6 million problem-free vaccinations. The author suggests that leaders come up with ‘sticky’, meme-like prompts to help shift that bias. For example, “In the last 6 months, 70 times more people have died falling out of bed than getting vaccinated.” That’s a US example, but there are plenty of others. Using gentle and non-confrontational persuasion may help reluctant employees who need to find comfort with their decision.

There’s no one easy solution, and many more work communities will find themselves in this place as mandatory vaccination comes into force, and maybe spreads to other types of workplaces. It needs a holistic approach that connects to both the rational and the emotional.

But these are workplace skills that we need for all the time, not just during a pandemic. Whether it be mandatory vaccinations or personal conflict, curiosity, empathy and listening are the magic formula for all challenges of difference. Now is the best possible time to put them into practice.

If you’d like to have an initial discussion about conflict resolution or other workplace behavioural issues, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. I can be contacted by email at debbie@dksonin.com.au, on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/debbiesonin or by phone on 0413 145 925.

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