Ensuring a Fair Workplace during Vaccination: Q&A with Dr Low Kiang Wei, Medical Director for International SOS

April 7, 20211:29 pm1690 views

A global vaccination campaign to contain the spread of Coronavirus is underway, with more than 678 million vaccine doses have been administered worldwide. As vaccines become more accessible to the public, employers are considering whether to implement vaccination policies. A question arises whether business owners should require their employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of their employment.

On that note, Dr Low Kiang Wei, Medical Director for International SOS is here with HR in Asia to discuss about how companies can ensure a fair workplace during immunisation programme. Stay tune!

Question: Covid-19 vaccines are being distributed globally. To support the campaign, what’s the best business leaders can do to encourage their staff to get vaccinated?

Answer: The Covid-19 vaccine is a major milestone in containing this pandemic and reopening the economy. With the vaccination campaign well underway, businesses have a role to play in encouraging vaccine uptake. This requires a concerted effort between both business and HR leaders, as well as the rest of the organisation to:

  • Encourage employees to get vaccinated, if possible
  • Help employees overcome fears or rationalise concerns over getting vaccinated
  • Ensure a safe working environment for all

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to vaccination policies, and each company should develop their programme based on their operating locations, size of their organisation, industry- specific risks, and overall business needs. For example, a local SME with purely domestic operations might only need to focus on encouraging their employees to get vaccinated, while larger MNCs might have to balance various country-specific regulations for wherever they operate from.

That said, a robust and holistic Covid-19 vaccination policy should encompass these four main pillars:

  1. Risk-assessment: to ensure a safe working environment, companies need to assess the various health threats and concerns in the workplace and current working arrangements, and the extent to which vaccination can be used to mitigate them;
  • Open communication: to keep employees abreast of changes within the organisation and have a trusted space to share their concerns. The organisation should establish channels to share resources and information about vaccine and company policy, and allow employees to engage in a deeper discussion.
  • Education: where employees can receive reliable advice and information to alleviate any fears or misconceptions about the vaccine and make educated decisions on their health and wellbeing.
  • Inclusivity: to ensure that all employees are fairly treated, at each stage of the immunisation campaign. Operational changes may be necessary throughout the process, and companies must ensure that each individual’s needs and concerns are heard and supported during this transition, and ensure that their health, safety and wellbeing are prioritised.
Question: As new Covid-19 strains are discovered, should employers make immunisation compulsory to ensure workplace safety?

Answer: The emergence of new Covid-19 strains has raised concerns and fears about their increased transmissibility and the implications of more severe disease. The ability of the current vaccines to curb the new variants is also an ongoing concern.

Covid-19 vaccinations are not mandatory in most countries, due to concerns on ethics and personal liberties. There are varying comfort levels of individuals in getting vaccinated, such as medical conditions, personal beliefs and other considerations. Likewise, businesses looking to make immunisation compulsory will face the same challenges.

There is a strong case for making any vaccination mandatory only if four conditions are met:

  1. There is a grave threat to public health (in this case, to the health of the workforce, and resilience of the organisation)
  2. Mandatory vaccination has a superior cost/benefit profile compared with other alternatives
  3. The vaccine is safe and effective
    1. The level of coercion is proportionate

Each of these conditions involves value judgments that will be peculiar to each corporation and will require extensive review and discussion between senior stakeholders, medical, legal and risk professionals.

Question: In your opinion, what kind of workplace settings require its employees to get vaccinated?

Question: In workplace settings where the risks of exposure are higher (for instance, the aviation and healthcare industries), or in industries that have a lot of interaction with consumers (for instance, retail and hospitality sector), there will be especially compelling reasons for business leaders to have policies in place to strongly encourage their employees to get vaccinated. This sends a message to the general public that it is safe to meet and conduct business with them.

Should business and HR leaders decide to make employee vaccination a requirement at the workplace, they must manage such policies with sensitivity, empathy, and inclusivity, while ensuring a safe and non-discriminatory working environment for all. Besides mandating vaccinations, leaders must also examine whether they have done the necessary to alleviate fears and concerns from their employees, and whether more can be done to facilitate the vaccination process.

Employees who feel that their health, safety and wellbeing are prioritised by the company throughout this immunisation period are more likely to have confidence in taking the vaccine, without fear of health or workplace consequences. Hence, business and HR leaders have a pivotal role in building a workplace culture that values and invests in every employee, in order to drive the vaccination uptake rate across their entire workforce.

Question: If vaccination is made voluntary, what are some complexities that could arise in the workplace, and how can they be addressed?

Right now, some main concerns would be:

  1. Vaccine hesitancy: which refers to the reluctance, or refusal, to accept vaccines to prevent the spread of contagious diseases. There are new fears that have arisen specific to the Covid-19 vaccine, with some individuals concerned about the speed of the vaccination approval, and others adopting a wait-and-see approach. Some individuals may have grown distrustful of these vaccines given the spread of vaccine misinformation.
  2. Discrimination in the workplace: apart from vaccine hesitancy, there will be employees who are unable to take the vaccine for medical, religious or other personal reasons. It is important to ensure that these employees are not discriminated by their colleagues or management, and that necessary steps are taken to ensure that the employee, as well as the rest of the workforce, has access to a safe working environment.

Over time, companies will need to address issues of a partially vaccinated workforce and the operational changes that might be necessary, tracking the vaccine progress across multiple locations, as well as monitoring their vaccination programme. Travel policies might also require revisions throughout the immunisation campaign, to comply with local regulations.

Question: What is a vaccination policy? How will it affect the workforce and workplace operations?

Answer: Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, vaccination policies have been implemented by companies to ensure their workforce is protected from various infectious diseases, like the seasonal flu for instance.

A vaccination policy provides evidence-based guidance to ensure three critical outcomes:

  1. Consistency: all employees are treated fairly and have ready access to the vaccines
  2. Accountability: all health and safety measures have been considered
  3. Efficiency: in rolling out a vaccination strategy that ensures the entire workforce is healthy

A robust and holistic vaccination policy will not only ensure the health and safety of the entire workforce but will also provide a safe and inclusive working environment for all, to facilitate safe workplace operations and ensure workforce and business resilience. With these objectives in mind, vaccination policies can include initiatives for employees to make well-informed medical decisions, address any concerns or fears, and provide ready and cost-effective access to vaccines.

Over the past four years, we have worked with a large technology firm to deliver a global flu vaccination programme for employees across 35 countries. This voluntary exercise provided employees ready access to the flu vaccine, and information to make educated decisions on their health and wellbeing. In December last year, this programme saw a 200 percent increase in uptake rates in certain locations – demonstrating the value and demand for vaccine policies and programmes.

The same principles largely apply to a Covid-19 vaccination policy. Every company’s vaccination policy will differ based on their specific organisation size, industry-specific risks, and overall business needs, but will protect the health and safety of the entire workforce, while providing a safe working environment for everyone to resume workplace operations.

Question: How to get started on a vaccination policy, and what are some pitfalls to avoid?

Answer: Here are four steps to get started on developing a robust and resilient vaccination policy:

  • Define your objective.

Each country’s vaccine rollout plan differs and impacts corporate vaccination policy. For example, in Singapore where the vaccine rollout is largely driven by the public healthcare system – the role of the business would be to support the national agenda and encourage employees to get the vaccine. In other countries, for example in Indonesia, private sector organisations can also obtain and administer vaccines for their workforce.

Based on these factors, an organisation can set their targets towards achieving herd immunity, or supporting the national agenda, or business needs – but it is important to identify these goals at this initial stage.

  • Assess the threats

A vaccination policy provides evidence-based guidance to ensure three critical outcomes: consistency, accountability and efficiency. This ensures that the entire workforce is treated fairly, has ready access to vaccines, and that there is accountability with regards to health and safety.

To achieve this, organisations need to take a holistic view of their operations and assess the various health and security threats that their workforce is exposed to. This will depend on the nature of your work and daily operations – some industries like aviation and healthcare will have far greater exposure to Covid-19 transmission, and require a more granular approach.

In an ever-evolving pandemic, having access to accurate intelligence is key to ensuring quality and consistency in your vaccination policy. With specific vaccine intelligence interrogated by a medical professional, organisations can uncover threats, risks and trends specific to their business, and make informed decisions on how this affects their policy. This also ensures that your vaccination policy is based on country-specific information, government regulations and employee population.

  • Communicate openly and regularly

As with all organisational changes, communicate transparently and regularly with your employees through various channels. After disseminating the information to your workforce, constantly engage with them to uncover developing challenges, risks and goals which will arise at different stages of the immunisation campaign.

Education is also critical for employees to make informed decisions on their health and wellbeing. Proactively conducting educational webinars or engaging with health experts to answer common questions that employees may have will instil confidence and trust so that employees can share their concerns or hesitations and encourage vaccine uptake. Employers should also be sensitive in delivering these messages, so that employees feel heard and understood.

  • Ready access, reporting and re-evaluating

Where possible, ready access to vaccines through company-wide vaccine drives, or arrangements with healthcare providers can provide the needed push for employees to get vaccinated. However, companies must be careful to balance between encouraging, and mandating vaccine uptake. Vaccinations are a largely personal issue, and employees may refuse to take the vaccine for medical, religious, or other reasons – and such cases be treated with empathy and fairness.

Companies will need to monitor these developments and report on the programme’s progress, successes and challenges to make accommodations and changes to overall business operations. Notable challenges can then be proactively managed and brought back on course to ensure that employees remain protected from Covid-19 and other health threats, while organisations can uphold their Duty of Care.

Question: How can vaccine policies push the needle in facilitating business travel and other workplace operations?

Answer: Vaccines mark a major milestone in the resumption of business travel, and other large- scale workplace operations. For instance, the US CDC recently announced new guidance that individuals who have been fully vaccinated in the last six months against Covid-19 may visit other fully vaccinated individuals indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing, and no longer need to be quarantined following an exposure to someone with Covid-19.

Border arrangements are also undergoing reviews and changes – for example, Israel has announced deals with Cyprus and Greece to allow vaccinated citizens of the various countries to travel between them without limitations, once flights resume. Closer to home, Australia is exploring a travel bubble with Singapore that will not require quarantine for vaccinated travellers.

Vaccination policies will help companies encourage take up of the vaccine, implement vaccination drives, as well as monitor the progress of their organisation locally or globally to ensure a high vaccination rate. This will also dovetail with the designing of bespoke travel policies and protocols to ensure that employees can travel safely as and when the authorities give the green light.

Question: What other areas should businesses look at during this Covid-19 immunisation period, to ensure a resilient workforce and workplace?

Answer: With the vaccine now available, businesses could also play a role in leveraging emerging digital health passports and supporting widespread adoption of such technologies to facilitate business travel or critical on-site work, whilst also protecting the health of citizens.

Such digital health passports have launched over the past few months and can store critical medical information like your Covid-19 test results or vaccination status, which can be easily presented for verification with various authorities.

One such tool is the ICC AOKpass blockchain platform and mobile application, which a coalition of founding partners – AOKpass Pte Ltd, International SOS, International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and SGS Group, launched in May last year. It offers secure storage and verification of a user’s medical information, which can be instrumental in the resumption of travel and return to operations. It eliminates ongoing issues of Covid-19 test fraud, as well as offers greater convenience and peace of mind.

Since December last year, digital health certificates authenticated by ICC AOKpass are being used for verification in Changi Airport by travellers from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. We are now working with more labs and clinics in Singapore to implement ICC AOKpass digital certificates for Covid-19 pre-departure testing.

In time we hope that that digital health certificates like ICC AOKpass will enable the safe re-opening of workplaces and cross-border travel and trade, while protecting the health and safety of all.

About

Dr Low Kiang Wei is Medical Director at International SOS, where he oversees all Medical Services and Health Consulting projects in Singapore. Additionally, Dr Low is responsible for driving Digital Health integration within the Group across Asia-Pacific, via implementing innovative telehealth and medical technology solutions.

Dr Low obtained his Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery from the National University of Singapore in 2008, followed by a Master of Medicine (Internal Medicine) in 2013. In the same year, he was also admitted as a Member of the Royal College of Physicians in the United Kingdom.

Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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