Vaccine Hesitancy in the Workplace: Navigating Employee Conversations Around the COVID-19 Vaccine


At the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Employer Forum: Building Vaccine Confidence Within Your Workplace, regional health experts from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) and Henry Ford Health System (HFHS) discussed the COVID-19 vaccines, navigating employee conversations, and the new COVID-19 variants.

Michigan currently has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the nation, driven in large part by the prevalence of the UK variant, explained James Grant, senior vice president and chief medical officer at BCBSM. While 49.4% of eligible Michigan residents have received at least one dose, the declining daily vaccination rate is concerning to public health officials.

“If we are going to get through this, the vaccine is going to play the crucial role in getting us back to a more normal environment,” said Grant. “We are headed in the right direction. We just have to get that last 50% to understand that this is how we are going to beat this.”

Employers are in a unique position to help move the needle on vaccination rates by educating and encouraging their workforce to register for a COVID-19 vaccine. Due to media, politics, religion, culture, trust in authorities, and lack of knowledge and awareness, it is understandable why some individuals may be hesitant.

What is vaccine hesitancy?

Vaccine hesitancy is a delay in acceptance of refusal of vaccines, despite availability of vaccination services. Vaccine hesitancy is not a clear yes-or-no topic; it is more of a spectrum and can be complex and content-specific, explained Beth Thayer, director for the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at HFHS.

What causes vaccine hesitancy?

Complacency, confidence, and convenience are the leading causes of vaccine hesitancy. Many people either don’t trust the vaccines or health authorities, don’t believe vaccination is necessary for personal and public health, or face barriers to accessibility, affordability, or acceptability of health services.

Biggest reasons for COVID-19 hesitancy

A survey conducted by Beaumont asked participants, “Regardless of whether you plan to be vaccinated, what is your biggest hesitancy with getting the COVID 19 vaccine, if any?”

  • Unknown long-term side effects: 45%
  • Potential short-term side effects: 31%
  • Speed at which the vaccine has been developed: 25%
  • Unknown length of immunity/protection: 25%
  • Speed at which the vaccine has been approved: 24%

Words matter

Since the biggest concerns revolve around side effects, the top three statements that respondents found most reassuring are:

  • “The likelihood of experiencing a severe side effect is less than 0.5%.”
  • “Mild side effects are normal signs that their body is building immunity.”
  • “Most side effects should go away in a few days.”

How to talk with employees about receiving a COVID-19 vaccine

“See each person as an individual with specific reasons for his or her own specific reasons for hesitancy,” explained Thayer. “Don’t treat getting the vaccine as a responsibility or an altruistic action for the betterment of wider society or the country.”

The message, ‘You need to do this for community,’ not only didn’t improve hesitancy, but in some cases, made hesitancy worse, according to a recent Beaumont poll.

“Always personalize it down to family and how it helps people on an individual level in their lives,” recommends Thayer.

Establish trust:

Approach the conversation with compassion and empathy and avoid judgement. Establish trust by listening intently to what they are saying and repeating back what you’ve heard.

Ask open-ended questions:

Get to the root of hesitancy by asking open-ended questions. Instead of asking, “Are you afraid of side effects?” try “What do you think of the vaccine?” and “What concerns do you have?”

Reflect and respond:

Use simple refection and complex reflection to show you understand their reasons for concern. For example, if an employee says they know receiving the COVID-19 vaccine will help protect them, but they are afraid of side effects, instead of asking “Why?” you should respond with “I understand that you want to make the best choice for yourself. What side effects are you concerned about?”

Focus on the positive: Focus your responses on the positives of getting vaccinated and “always personalize it to family,” recommends Thayer:

  • “Getting vaccinated will help keep you, your family, and your community healthy and safe.”
  • “At 95% efficacy, the vaccine is extraordinarily effective at protecting you from the virus.”

Be respectful:

Above all, respect their decision. The goal of the conversation is not to change their mind.

  • If undecided, leave the door open for a new discussion: “Let’s revisit this once you have had a chance to think more about vaccination. How does that sound?”
  • If refusal, do not debate: “I understand. Please know that if you change your mind and want to talk about vaccinating, I am always available.”

For more information on navigating workplace conversations about COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, please visit the resources below: