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These 6 steps can help calm employee anxieties about returning to the office

Before you ask workers to return to work, you need to review—and clearly communicate—these safety policies.

These 6 steps can help calm employee anxieties about returning to the office
[Source photo: Andres Victorero/iStock]
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Reducing uncertainty around returning to work will be critical for a successful reopening. From the employer side, some may be eager to resume in-person business as usual, but the employees might feel differently. Companies should recognize that Covid-19 vaccines may not eliminate an employee’s anxiety. Widespread availability of vaccines could, in theory, shield the work environment from an outbreak—but herd immunity remains elusive with nearly one-third Americans either unlikely or cautious about being vaccinated. With indoor masking guidelines eased by the CDC for fully vaccinated individuals (but not the unvaccinated), it becomes all the more crucial for employers to take an active role in ensuring the highest possible level of protection in their workplace. To roll-out out a successful return-to-office plan, clearly communicate your health policies and prepare to be considerate of your employees’ needs. You can start by considering the following questions:

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  • So what does this mean for employers who want/need to transition back to an in-person workplace?
  • How can you achieve the level of vaccination needed to reassure anxious employees?
  • Will a vaccine mandate minimize the risk of a disruptive and dangerous outbreak?

Make vaccination an easy, good experience

There can be many reasons why an individual has not yet been vaccinated, and it’s not always a matter of outright resistance. A recent McKinsey study found that initiatives to increase convenience and decrease cost are among the most effective measures employers can take to increase employees’ likelihood of receiving vaccination.

Amtrak, for instance, allows excused absences for employees receiving vaccinations, while Kroger is giving frontline associates a payment incentive of $100. Other large corporations, like Amazon and Subaru, have partnered with licensed health care providers to bring on-site vaccinations to the workplace, and Apple was the first Big Tech leader to launch a website for employee appointment sign-ups.

Give people room to change their minds

A little patience can go a long way. Vaccination can be a confusing or frightening prospect for many people, especially in a media landscape fraught with misinformation, disinformation, and outright scaremongering. Have trusted clinicians available for one-on-one conversations to help people talk through their concerns. Offer matter-of-fact webinars. Train managers to answer questions. Treat hesitant employees with respect and consideration, and they’ll be more likely to come around. The goal isn’t to prove anyone wrong; it’s to help everyone make the right decision.

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Offer a fully COVID-19-protected workplace

If you want to put employees’ minds at ease, showing that you’re striving to provide a fully vaccinated workplace will go a long way—and a mandate is the surest way to accomplish that goal. Some employers might be reluctant to get involved in employees’ health choices, but while the decision to get vaccinated is a personal one, its impact can be far broader. A single positive case can quickly spread both infection and panic across a workplace, putting other employees at risk and potentially shutting down operations entirely.

For some businesses, the feasibility of remote work can allow an alternative for these workers while preserving the onsite requirement. But for a broad range of industries, this flexibility isn’t available, and employers may have difficult decisions to make. Pulling back from a mandate to a recommendation is one option, but it comes with considerable risk to both employees and the business. If you take this route, you should still take every measure to increase the rate of vaccination within your workplace.

Communicate with transparency and firmness

When adopting a vaccination mandate, make sure employees understand why. Confusing messages in the media can contribute to fears about the safety of various vaccines and skepticism about their necessity or effectiveness. To keep the discussion grounded, explain that the decision has been made to protect employees’ health as well as the continuity of the business. Complement scientific, data-driven persuasion with personal stories about the positive benefits of vaccination, such as being able to safely spend time with extended family members. People have been living with fear for well over a year; vaccination is one of the most important steps people can take to reclaim peace of mind for themselves and their loved ones.

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A planned workplace reopening can be a natural occasion to introduce a mandate. Provide clear guidance and notify employees that, as of a given date, all those who are vaccinated will be welcome back to the office.

But allow for valid exceptions

While OSHA rules suggest that employers can mandate vaccination, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act offer provisions employees can use to avoid this requirement. If an employee cites religious, ethical, or medical reasons not to be vaccinated, this must be respected. Following the principle of herd immunity, a workplace with less than universal vaccination can still be considered safe — if these exceptions represent less than 10 percent of the onsite population. If the exception rate exceeds this level, employers should explore options for remote work or staggered schedules to manage risk. Regular testing can offer added protection for employees who remain vulnerable, as well as for vaccinated employees who might be exposed to a breakthrough variant.

Don’t forget about boosters

Finally, stay abreast of later developments around safety. Both Pfizer and Moderna have already tested respective booster shots that aim to protect against known variants, with both vaccines showing promising results. However, as genetic changes to the virus create even more variants, booster shots may be necessary every six months to a year after a person’s second shot. Keeping track of all these individual injections and dates can help ensure the health and safety of the entire workforce. This may seem intrusive or onerous, but employers should weigh the sensitivity and complexity of these measures against the real business risk of an office shutdown. Technology-enabled solutions can make it possible to track the vaccination status of employees while respecting their privacy.

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Ultimately, workplace vaccination mandates are a matter of business, not morality. Returning to business-as-usual means providing an environment where people feel safe and can focus on their work, not their fears. As a practical matter, it’s also critical to avoid the widespread shutdowns of last year, and that means taking an active role in protecting their employees and keeping Covid-19 out of their workplace. There will be challenges along the way—both logistical and cultural—but it’s what we need to do to move forward.


Matt McCambridge is co-founder and chief executive officer at hybrid care provider Eden Health where he’s dedicated to delivering a better healthcare experience for member patients.

Bunny Ellerin is the director of Columbia Business School Healthcare Management Program, and is co-founder and CEO of NYC Health Business Leaders, driving change and innovation in healthcare.