As experts in helping organisations build new habits fast, there’s a question we keep hearing from business leaders: “What does science say about getting more of our employees vaccinated?”
This question has become both important and now urgent in the many industries where humans work in close quarters with others, including manufacturing, retail, and of course, health care.
And while plenty of business leaders are still on the fence on the topic, many CEOs are also realising that getting more employees vaccinated is likely to help everyone focus more on their work and less on who they might bump into if or when they do come to the office. To put a further point to this: outbreaks in indoor spaces are likely to be very frequent with the delta variant - it is dramatically more contagious than previous strains - and this is bad for business. The unvaccinated are putting everyone - even the vaccinated - at risk.
A few organisations are already experimenting with making vaccination mandatory. And just this week, medical groups called for mandatory vaccination of health care workers. If this approach is feasible in your organisation, it seems to work. The legal perspective is tending toward this being realistic, as long as you accommodate for medical issues and other factors. The main issue is the psychology involved: Expect some employees to vote with their feet and leave in protest, but overall the evidence is that this approach is working.
For companies who want to encourage vaccination but don’t think a mandate is possible, here are three strategies from behavioural science that can help. Find a simple, sticky “meme” to drive home the message
While there are some reasons for some folks not being vaccinated, such as political motivations, religious beliefs, or underlying health issues such as allergies to the vaccine, these are all difficult to address. To weigh into these debates is not the goal of this article. We believe the place for leaders to focus is the people on the fence because they are uncertain about the risks.
One of people’s big concerns is the fear of dying from the vaccine itself. It is true - some people are likely to have died from taking the vaccine. Scientists estimate this at three people in 2021 so far.
Any death is obviously a tragedy. However, people understandably often get worked up when they learn that folks die doing something. The trouble is, then they sometimes start to exhibit maladaptive behaviours - behaviours ironically likely to increase their odds of death, such as not getting vaccinated. While 3 people may have died from the vaccine in 6 months, over one hundred times more are dying, every day, from Covid in 2021. And as we are learning, almost all are unvaccinated.
The reason people are anchoring on a few vaccine deaths comes down to a bias inbuilt into the human brain, called Safety Bias. The brain is highly reactive to potential dangers. Anything that could be a danger is given a lot of processing time in the brain. So even a single death that is reported in the media can create a lot of concern. It sticks firmly in the brain. We’re just built that way.
Recently there was some media saying this number wasn’t three, it was in the thousands, a number that really stuck even in my brain. I decided to dig into the data. It turns out that around 7,000 people die every day in the US from all causes, of this 526 every single day just from unintentional injuries, and bigger numbers from cancer and heart disease. Over 6 months, with over 160 million people getting jabbed, a lot of people will die from other causes on the exact day they receive their vaccine.
However, given how sticky it might be to think about even three people dying, we need to fight back against this kind of information that sticks in people’s heads, using equally sticky ideas that displace them. We need messaging that cuts through and gets attention, and stays in people’s minds easily, enough for them to pass on to others. To hack the brain’s memory system, we need to develop messages that are extremely simple and clear, and even visual, but also novel or surprising.
Let’s start with finding the ‘simple’ part of the narrative. There are so many numbers here it’s been hard to simplify, but let’s try. 3 people out of 187 million is a very small number indeed. Actually it is so small that a number of ridiculous things are dramatically more dangerous. It might be obvious that swimming or riding a bike is more dangerous. But at 3 in 160 million, it turns out you are more likely to die from sunstroke, falling over, or even just eating.
Armed with this insight, you might develop some language that is sticky, simple, and visual, like: “Scared of the vaccine? You’re 1000 times more likely to die driving to work.”
What about the ‘surprising’ aspect? One comparison that struck me was the fact that more people die just from falling over. From this you might surmise it is best to just stay in bed — except that 450 people a year in the USA seem to die even from that. So now you can share something simple, sticky, and surprising, like: “In the last 6 months, 70 times more people have died falling out of bed than getting vaccinated.”
To get more people vaccinated, organisations need to fight back against the sticky falsehoods coming out on social media. Find a narrative that is simple, sticky, and especially surprising. Use the ideas above for starters, or develop your own that are relevant to the work your people do day to day. Make it ridiculously easy to get a vaccine (and harder not to)
There’s a long history of behavioural science research on how to get people to take an action, and it points to one big idea: When it’s easier to get vaccinated than not to, we will see a surge. We probably won’t get to 100 percent - people’s belief structures are incredibly powerful, and the politics involved has been intense - but we can probably get over 80%, or even 90%, which would mean the difference in whether or not we achieve herd immunity.
Start with rapid, easy vaccination stations in office lobbies everywhere. Then add this rule: if you have no vaccine, and don’t have a medical reason why not, then a few times a week you need to get to work earlier for daily rapid testing, plus filling out a questionnaire, all of which together will take 30 minutes. Who wants to spend 30 additional minutes per in-office day vs. getting a single five-minute shot?
Then to top it off, be sure to give people automatic time off as a reward for getting vaccinated, in case they do experience side effects. Again, make it easy to get vaccinated, and harder not to. It’s long been said that people tend to do what’s easy, not what’s right. So let’s make it really easy to do what’s right. Motivate with social threats and rewards
Humans are highly social beings. Large parts of our brain are devoted to tracking tiny changes in the social fabric around us moment to moment — so much so that the strongest motivations turn out to be social ones. So to get people motivated, we should cleverly apply social threats and rewards.
One strategy is to limit people’s ability to be social if they choose not to vaccinate, and increase them if they do. It is logical that only vaccinated people can eat in the cafeteria for example, as people need to de-mask to eat. Maybe vaccinated people have a whole common area they can socialize in, with free coffee and snacks thrown in. This would provide a social reward for being vaccinated, and a social threat to those who choose not to.
People also react strongly to feeling judged by others. In the brain, feeling part of an ‘outgroup’ is quite painful. Consider a sticker approach, where people have to have either a green sticker (vaccinated) or red sticker (not) on their badge, easily visible, to get in the building. Obviously require people who are unvaccinated to wear a mask at all times. Make some physical HQ areas vaccinated-only. And give positive benefits to people who have been vaccinated, such as financial reward, or even better a thank-you gift box sent to their home as a surprise. In short, make it an especially nice thing to be vaccinated, and a very uncomfortable situation not to be, while of course allowing for the outliers with medical conditions or other valid reasons making vaccination not feasible. What’s next
Not all of these ideas will work in every organisation, but we wanted to spark some fresh thinking, based on research, about this urgent question, in the spirit of reconsidering ineffective strategies, experimenting, and thinking outside the box. In reality, of course, many of these ideas may not be viable for most organisations. There are going to be issues and pushback and debate with any and every strategy you apply here - people on both sides of this debate feel passionately about their choice. Don’t expect to get 100% of people on board. But we can do a lot better than we have been.
And of course if you do all the right things and still have outliers who don’t want to vaccinate, that’s OK if they play by the rules outlined for those who choose not to vaccinate. Though at this point, mask wearing can’t be optional for the unvaccinated and may need to be monitored.
To make our workplaces safer, let’s hack the brain to get more people vaccinated. In short: simplify the core message, make it super easy, and motivate with the things that really matter. It’s time to make it easy to do what’s right.