Australia is lagging behind much of the western world when it comes to getting its people vaccinated. Addressing vaccine hesitancy could help.
Dr Mark Alfano, associate professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University, researches COVID-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories for a career, but he was still surprised when he heard his own social peers spouting incorrect information about the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I was talking to someone last week who were saying, ‘Oh, I don’t really want to get vaccinated. I don’t see any reason to. It’s just a way for the government to control us,’” says Alfano.
“I do worry, because there’s a very low urgency here, that a lot of people will not do the responsible thing.”
Over four million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Australia. While that number sounds impressive, it only equates to two per cent of the population (roughly 400,000 people) who are fully vaccinated, meaning they’ve received both of their jabs.
It’s unknown exactly what percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, but according to the World Health Organisation you need 95 per cent to combat measles and 80 per cent for polio. So it’s safe to assume Australia is a fair way off from COVID-19 herd immunity.
A recent survey by the Sydney Morning Herald and research company Resolve Strategic found that one-third of Australian adults were unlikely to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The survey’s authors noted some of the hesitancy is due to a lack of access and concerns about the blood clots linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine.
While it’s certainly understandable that some people would hold these fears, the misinformation that surrounds other aspects of the vaccine and COVID-19 itself is worrying. So what can HR do to help allay fears?
AHRI’s general manager of people and culture, Rosemary Guyatt FCPHR, says it’s time employers play their part in combating misinformation and encourage employees to get the vaccine.
“The UK and US have had a really rapid take up of the vaccine, and I understand that employers have been engaged in that promotion which has been part of the success,”’ says Guyatt
“Just letting the general public gradually sign up isn’t getting the take up we need, so employers have a role to play.”
Sticking to their beliefs
Misinformation has been rife since the beginning of the pandemic.
In two studies from June 2020, a multinational team of philosophy researchers asked people aged 18-74 in the US about their attitudes towards COVID-19 and how they think people can catch or prevent the virus. The researchers involved came from Macquarie University in Sydney, the University of Hamburg in Germany and Groningen University in the Netherlands.
Twenty per cent of respondents thought they were immune to the virus due to factors such as age and diet.
“We didn’t just ask 20 or 50 people, we asked nearly 2000,” says Alfano, who was a co-author on both studies.
One in five weren’t interested in changing their mind once they believed in something. Alfano thinks this might be related to the abundance of information we have access to as well as decision fatigue leading people to be reluctant to alter their opinions.
“There’s just so much information that people have to process on a daily basis, and sometimes experts change their advice. I think, in order to cut down on the amount of decision-making that they have to do, people just say, ‘I’ll decide once and then and then never change [my opinion].’”
“Even if only 20 per cent of people are accepting this misinformation, that could lead them to get themselves and other people sick.”
Although the study was conducted in the US, Alfano (who is based in Australia) says he wouldn’t be surprised to see similar results over here.
“The two cultures are not really that different from each other and most psychological research that’s done in Australia replicates studies done in the States,” he says.
People who believe they’re immune to the virus aren’t only going to avoid social distancing or wearing a mask, they’re also unlikely to get vaccinated, says Alfano.
Overcoming vaccine hesitancy
To combat this misinformation, and reduce employees’ fears about the vaccine, Guyatt and Alfano have identified several ways employers can help:
1. Use expert advice
Alfano suggests bringing in an expert to answer employees’ questions about the vaccine.
“These could be local doctors or nurses, people from the health ministry, people from NGOs who specialise in public health or possibly university academics who have medical expertise,” says Alfano.
An important step is setting up regular and reliable communications about the vaccine, says Guyatt.
“If you have a company newsletter there should be a section in there [about vaccines]. In our weekly meetings at AHRI, we have a COVID-update which we use to remind employees to register for vaccination. The important thing is regularity and keeping it front of mind for employees,” she says.
Alternatively, remind employees COVID-19 is a safety issue and getting the vaccine is a safety precaution. You could use safety alerts and toolbox talks to promote the issue, says Guyatt.
3. Promote personal stories
News outlets and health officials will use statistics to help contextualise issues, but personal stories are often a stronger way to get employee buy-in.
“Everyone has a story. It might be about having the virus, or about how they missed their daughter’s wedding or a close-family member’s funeral. There is definitely an emotional plea that can be made,” says Guyatt.
Alfano agrees that stories are powerful, but says they should be used in conjunction with other approaches, such as providing expert advice.
“The other side has personal stories too. You don’t want to get into a ‘he said she said’ battle,” he says.
4. Remind them of the benefits
Guyatt also suggests reminding employees that the only way we’ll truly get back to normal is through widespread vaccination.
“All of Australia has been impacted, Victoria especially. We are only going to be able to start travelling again, going on overseas holidays, bringing in international talent again, if people are vaccinated.
“Also, remind employees it really is the best way to protect your family and your community.”
5. Use peer networks
According to research by PwC, employees have felt more personally connected to each other during the pandemic. Employers can use these stronger networks to encourage discussions about the vaccine.
“In my team we’ve discussed the fact that we can all register now and we ask each other ‘Do you have a booking? When are you going?’ Having even a small team invested can have a ripple effect,” says Guyatt.
“It’s not just the corporate communications. You need to bring it down to management and team level too.”
6. Be trustworthy and lead by example
If people trust their leaders, particularly managers and HR professionals, they’re more likely to turn to them for advice, says Alfano.
“Listen to people’s concerns and don’t talk down to them when answering their questions. You want to set yourself up as someone people will come back to for advice,” he says.
Adding to this, Guyatt says, “Managers have a responsibility to communicate effective and correct information about the vaccine regardless of what they believe, but the strongest message you can send will be getting the vaccine yourself.”