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Anti-vaxxers and the new workplace divisions

Consultancy 9th December 2020

Around 38% of 13,000 professionals surveyed by Nature Medicine journal in November 2020 said they would ignore advice from their employer to receive a Covid-19 vaccination.

In legal terms, employers can’t insist on vaccination and any different treatment of employees would constitute discrimination. With a clear divide between the ‘anti-vaxxers’ and the rest, what happens to day-to-day employee relations and attempts to return to normal office routines and face-to-face meetings?

The clash in perspectives over the pandemic is more urgently felt and more affecting than Brexit ever was. Activism has been growing internationally among groups who believe coronavirus restrictions have been out of proportion with the health risks, and have caused more harm than good in terms of lost jobs, isolation and damage to mental health.

In workplaces, there are other fault lines of tensions: those employees working through lockdowns who have seen colleagues furloughed and being paid for not working; and vice-versa, furloughed staff who are isolated and bored at home. Within organisations there are those able to WFH – safe and secure – and those who can’t, living with increased health risks. And in general, across workforces, a division between those employees relatively untouched by Covid-19 worries and grief, who have kept hold of their household financial security and prospects, and others needing to cope with a very different reality.

The potential for cracks in employee relations, for different kinds of activism based on a heightened sense of ‘right’ behaviour, is high. That’s not even mentioning the increased tensions caused by staff who continue to attend workplaces and meetings with even minor cold-like symptoms.

There’s no doubt the Covid-19 crisis led to an outpouring of togetherness – staff reported increased contact from managers, more active socialising, if only through screens of devices. Perhaps it was only made possible by the novelty of it all. Either way, HR need to build on that sense of community that remains. Respecting diversity of opinions can be as important as respecting other kinds of diversity. When it comes to vaccinations, for example, there are a list of reasons why someone won’t want to take a vaccine once they become available: pre-existing conditions or fears about side effects and implications for mental health.

Whatever the tensions and likely grievances that emerge post-Covid-19, there has to be a culture of trust and confidence in employer systems. Staff need to know they will be listened to, and that management will be understanding and reasonable. Simple enough in principle. In practice HR need to re-visit their approach to disputes and investigations to ensure the right skills and partners are in place: managers have a good standard of ‘difficult’ conversations skills and training; there is access to mediation; investigations are going to be carried out to the highest professional standards.