In the total rewards space, employers are already busy preparing for open enrollment, navigating compliance updates and strategizing their 2024 pay increase plans.
Now comes another item on the to-do list: encouraging employees to get vaccinated.
Flu shots, COVID-19 boosters and even the new respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) vaccine are all on the agenda. But this year presents a few unique challenges, including the fact that some employees are reluctant about receiving more vaccines after the mandates that were common in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, employers are proceeding with a little more caution.
"It's definitely a big challenge," said Terry Layman, M.D., chief medical officer at Indianapolis-based Marathon Health, a health clinic provider that works with employers. "Everybody agrees that the outcome we'd like is a high percentage of our population vaccinated. I think the 'how' is kind of the trick."
A September poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that only about half of Americans said they plan to get the latest COVID-19 booster. Among all adults, 23 percent say they will definitely get the new vaccine. Another 23 percent said they will probably get it, while 19 percent said they will probably not get it, and 33 percent said they will definitely not get it. A slightly higher share—58 percent—said they plan to get a flu shot this fall.
Health and industry experts said employers benefit from getting many of their employees vaccinated in the form of healthier workers who will ultimately take fewer sick days, not contribute to higher health care costs and be less likely to spread disease to others in the organization. Vaccines can reduce transmission, as well as the seriousness of viruses like COVID-19, and keep workers out of the hospital, said Mary Kay O'Neill, M.D., senior health consultant at MercerWELL.
"Protecting people from being at risk for that happening, both from an individual and from a company perspective, is pretty significant," she said. "Employers play a big role in public health."
"Keeping the individual employees and their co-workers safe is paramount," he said. "Getting as many people vaccinated as possible is our biggest weapon against those respiratory illnesses that are spread in the workplace and can take out an entire department."
So how are employers getting employees to roll up their sleeves? A few different strategies are in the works.
Onsite Clinics, Communication and More
Onsite flu or COVID-19 shot clinics—or a combination of both—are being offered by some employers, especially larger organizations with the resources to provide them.
Such clinics alleviate the stress of employees having to find available shots, and make it simple for them to get vaccinated during work hours.
"Flu shot clinics aren't a new activity; many employers know how to do that, and they have relationships with vendors that can come onsite," O'Neill said. "I think people understand that one of the barriers to getting vaccines or any kind of good preventive care is the time and effort it takes an individual to shoehorn it in."
Other employers might want to give employees a list of nearby available locations for shots—especially when it comes to the latest COVID-19 booster, as some people are having trouble locating it.
"Not everybody has been able to get their hands on the new COVID vaccine," O'Neill said. "Helping with that could be beneficial."
Many HR and benefits leaders send communication about vaccines in the form of emails, flyers around work offices or even mailers to employees' homes. The information can range from resources about the availability of shots and ensuring employees that the shots will be covered through their insurance to the health benefits of getting vaccinated. Employers may also want to tell employees that, medically, they can get a flu shot and a COVID-19 booster on the same day, O'Neill said. That may make them more likely to get multiple shots if they had only planned to get one.
Also on the communication agenda for some employers is the new RSV vaccine, which was approved earlier this year. Although it's not intended for most people, it is approved for children, people ages 60 and older, and pregnant women. Employers can send information about the new vaccine and remind employees who are eligible. O'Neill added that sending materials from medical organizations, such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, would be a good idea, as would encouraging workers to talk with their doctor about potentially getting vaccinated.
Other employers might go a step further by turning to incentives—offering gift cards or cash—in exchange for employees rolling up their sleeves. This was already fairly common among organizations for flu shots, and many employers continued the practice for COVID-19 shots.
"Incentivizing, and financial incentives, always seem to get the conversation going," Layman said. "It at least gets more employees thinking about it or asking about getting vaccines."
In general, providing encouragement in the way of access, information or incentives is king this year—not mandates. Although some organizations do mandate flu and COVID-19 vaccines, it's more common among health care organizations, Layman said.
In general, employers are trying to find the right balance of promoting without being too heavy-handed, Layman said. That's because of contentiousness that cropped up in the past couple years when scores of employers required employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19—sometimes resulting in employee backlash.
"It's a little bit more of a hands-off approach," he said. "Employers are still trying to get workers vaccinated, but they're also trying to restore the autonomy and make it more the employees' choice, not necessarily about somebody acquiescing to an employer's request."
Approaching it that way, at least this year, Layman said, might allow vaccines to become normalized again and part of the vast majority of employees' regular yearly routine.
"I think if we can restore patients' autonomy a little bit, the decision-making process will normalize the COVID vaccines, as well get back to the normalization of the flu vaccines, and it'll just become that thing that most people do again," he said.