The Ins and Outs of Encouraging Vaccinations in the Workplace

August is National Immunization Awareness Month, a time in which we raise awareness about why vaccines are important and how they prevent serious, sometimes deadly, diseases. 

Contagious viruses—like the measles, which is currently making a comeback in the U.S.—can wreak havoc. In April, a university student with measles in California went to classes one day, later causing hundreds of students to be quarantined. Imagine the toll a rapidly spreading virus could take on a corporate office.

Vaccines are powerful in combating the spread of viruses. In 2000, thanks to an aggressive vaccination movement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared the disease eliminated in the U.S. after 27,000 reported cases of measles in 1990.

Despite their effectiveness, vaccinations remain a controversial issue, compounded by the fact that companies cannot legally mandate vaccinations for their employees.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employer-forced medical examinations, which includes vaccinations, although they can be required in healthcare settings and schools. That recently changed in April 2019 when Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was hit so hard by the recent measles outbreak that the city health commissioner mandated that everyone who lives and works in certain zip codes receive the vaccination. Following that, New York State legislative officials took action and repealed the religious-exemption, a response to the 588 (and growing) reported measles cases in NYC. While other states may follow suit, currently 45 of them still allow for religious exemptions from vaccinations. 

So, how can companies ensure their workplaces do not negatively affect the overall health of their staff?

While companies can’t require vaccinations, they can tout their health benefits. A lot of misinformation exists about vaccinations, largely perpetuated by social media and the personal opinions of outspoken celebrities. Presenting employees with facts can go a long way to spreading awareness of the health consequences for themselves, their loved ones and their community at large. Though the CDC’s recommendations vary based on age, the three shots it suggests for healthy adults under age 60 are the annual flu shot, the measles vaccine, and the Tdap vaccine that protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis.

In-office immunization clinics also can have an incredible impact. A CDC survey found that workplaces that offered even just a one-day on-site clinic saw a vaccination rate of 70.4 percent compared to 47.6 percent of workplaces with no clinic or advocacy. Employees may want to get a vaccine but simply don’t have the time or don’t know where to get them. After all, they spend the majority of their waking hours at work, not counting their lives and responsibilities outside the office. Bringing the vaccinations to them—and providing them for free—can make all the difference. And since it takes less than five minutes to get a shot, hosting an immunization clinic won’t detract from staff productivity.

The cost benefits of providing an in-office free immunization clinic are evident. Every year, the flu leads to $6.2 billion in lost productivity for businesses, not to mention impacts the U.S. economy with $10.4 billion in hospitalizations and outpatient visits. The fee for hosting an in-office flu-shot clinic, for example, is about $29.50 per person, according to a price quote from TotalWellness. On the other hand, a company loses $200 if an employee (with an annual salary of at least $50,000) takes just one day off work—and on average, a person with the flu takes five days off. A person with the measles is contagious—and therefore should avoid the office—for eight days.

But even just encouraging vaccinations is effective. Post on social media channels and place flyers around the office detailing the hard facts of vaccines and their vital role in mass health. HR can send an office-wide email about the approaching flu season, letting employees know that company policy that allows an hour or two for staff to go get vaccinated, and also remind them if their insurance covers vaccines, as most employee health plans do

Much of the argument around vaccinations is based on people’s right to make their own health decisions, not on their effectiveness. All companies can do is to provide their staff with the information and make it as easy as possible for them to be proactive about their health and the well-being of those around them. And maybe offer a hand to squeeze for the employees who do opt for the shot.