Vaccinations: What are the challenges for global employers?

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Vaccination policies and availability will inevitably differ between countries – potentially causing a headache for HR teams in firms with an international footprint. Dr Anthony Renshaw discusses how this should be approached.

As vaccines for Covid-19 are approved, distributed and administered around the world, the picture is becoming more complex and nuanced. Some countries are forging ahead, while others are falling behind, and the advent of new variants is creating uncertainties around how effective some vaccines will be in the long-term.

Employers are starting to explore and understand what, if anything, their role might be in vaccine distribution. In some countries this is clear: the USA has stipulated that employers will be expected to play a role in phase two of the country’s vaccination campaign, after higher risk groups are identified and vaccinated. They are also expected to promote vaccine uptake now by signposting to those at high risk how to access vaccination.

In other countries, the role of employers, if any, is far less clear.

What is also uncertain in many jurisdictions is the level at which Covid-19 vaccination is, or will become, mandatory – for example, to enable access to certain services or in certain occupational settings. Depending on the country and local laws, employers may be able to request a proof of vaccination or an update on employee vaccine status.

Societal responsibility?

Employers are also starting to understand that vaccination may play a bigger role beyond business continuity, and it is not just a desire to get up and running again or to facilitate travel that is necessarily triggering this shift (although this is a key driver for many sectors).

When organisations participate in a vaccination programme or help with its communication, they are actively facilitating the development of herd immunity in a community. Many businesses appreciate that supporting the global push towards vaccination is a societal public good. However, the challenges for global organisations in doing so are abundant.

Over the last few months International SOS has been working with numerous organisations that are exploring how to facilitate vaccination for their global workforce. Among the many considerations that organisations are navigating is how best to educate their workforce about vaccinations; how to help them actively navigate the infodemic and misinformation; how vaccination might impact upon testing and quarantine protocols; and what impact the vaccine could have on international and domestic travel.

In many countries employers are seen as a trusted source of information. However, organisations also need to tailor their education and communication materials to their local populations, mindful of the cultural issues that inform varied levels of vaccine acceptance around the world.

Our role is not to dictate or cajole but to empower the right decisions based on science and a rational approach to risk, and provide an opportunity to re-examine a decision not to be vaccinated – not to “close doors”.

Building knowledge

The latest vaccine developments, requirements and availability are fast-moving, and providing real time, accurate information to help reduce vaccine hesitancy and misinformation is increasingly important to build employee confidence.

Employees should be empowered with the information they need to make a choice and be clear on the steps they need to take to receive a Covid-19 vaccine. An employer’s role in communicating this is as key to public health as the efficacy of a particular brand of vaccine.

Our role is not to dictate or cajole but to empower the right decisions based on science and a rational approach to risk, and provide an opportunity to re-examine a decision not to be vaccinated.”

However, many issues remain unclear for many organisations. Should they simply support coronavirus vaccinations at strategic level, or should they support particular geographies, such as those in locations with a less comprehensive vaccine strategy? Should they encourage or actively provide access to a vaccine for employees? What about contractors or visitors that are crucial to operations? Should families be considered? How does citizenship or residency impact this? What are the ethical issues to agree upon before embarking upon a corporate vaccination strategy?

Below are some of the main approaches we recommend global organisations consider.

Assisting in defining local guidelines

Organisations can play an important role in communicating local instructions and defining guidelines by:

  • Providing communication materials to the local workforce on priority groups and the steps local employees should take to receive the vaccine recommended by health authorities
  • Emphasising the importance and benefit of the local recommended vaccine(s)
  • Offering an opportunity for question and answer with a trained health professional
  • Providing materials on the recommended vaccine in their country, how many doses are required, or the need for boosters
  • In some countries, creating positive incentives to receive a vaccine may be permissible, based on local legislation (e.g. vaccination tracker, recognition etc)
  • In some countries employers may be permitted (or expected) to identify those in higher priority groups that should be given access to vaccination first
  • In some countries requesting vaccine certificates may be permissible, or may even be required in future under health and safety regulations.

Providing tools to navigate the system

Providing employees and managers with the latest information on vaccine developments can help ease concerns. This can take the form of:

  • Providing employees and managers with assistance on how to access a vaccine in their location to help speed up access
  • Facilitating employees accessing vaccination, either in terms of flexible working arrangements or paid time off
  • Reducing logistical challenges by offering administrative support to relieve pressure on managers
  • Assisting employees to resolve any language barriers which can be especially helpful for international assignees
  • Providing access to medical advice to help employees decision-make especially if choices are needing to be made on the type of vaccine, or in which country a vaccine could be accessed.

Assisting with vaccine procurement and enabling access

With the risk of fake vaccines and forged vaccination passports ever present, enabling quality oversight of any vaccine programme has never been more important. Employers can address this by:

  • Providing a verified global overview of current vaccination availability and strategies being rolled out
  • Assisting managers to navigate potential issues around vaccine quality and identify suitable local providers
  • Providing access to the vaccine through a reputable external provider (e.g. nurse on site or office vaccination clinics), which may become available in some countries
  • Understanding where international assignees might be able to avail of national vaccination programmes in their country of residence, and assisting them to enable access.

It will require significant global effort to roll Covid-19 vaccines out to as many people as possible, and HR teams have a key role in ensuring their workforce is equipped with the knowledge and ability to play their part in building immunity.

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Dr Anthony Renshaw

About Dr Anthony Renshaw

Dr Anthony Renshaw is regional medical director in the Europe Consulting Practice at International SOS in London.
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