The global race to vaccinate against Covid-19 is gathering steam – and along with it, the optimism of a return to business as usual. Companies are mulling over how best to get their workforce to roll up their sleeves. Should they make vaccinations compulsory? And if not, what can they do to encourage their employees to get a jab? Mandating vaccines is the exception, not the rule, a recent Mercer survey of more than 1,300 companies found. Across the Asia-Pacific, only 6 per cent of employers who responded to the survey have decided to implement a mandate, with a further 14 per cent considering it. More said they were looking at incentives, from cash and gifts cards (4 per cent) to paid time off (35 per cent); while more than half remain undecided. Amid a global vaccination roll-out fraught with supply chain hurdles and scepticism, many questions remain unanswered, including the big one that companies have been asking: what role should they play in the inoculation effort? VACCINE INCENTIVES Governments and businesses are no strangers to using incentives to drive outcomes, whether it’s boosting births through baby bonuses like in Singapore , or encouraging scientists to return to the country of their – or their ancestors’ – birth to share their expertise, as with the Philippines ’ Balik Scientist programme. Companies have likewise used incentives, both financial and otherwise, to drive better performance, employee engagement, and even improved health and well-being. But incentivising people to take vaccines would be uncharted territory. Studies vary on how effective incentives are. Just as there is no clear evidence that Singapore’s pro-fertility policies have had much impact on the country’s fertility rates, it remains unclear whether incentives will meaningfully increase vaccine uptake among those who are hesitant or opposed. How vaccine hesitancy stands between Asia and herd immunity We believe many people, if given the option, will not get vaccinated until they feel comfortable, which takes time and experience – not money or vouchers. Incentives, according to psychologists, do little to address or alter the attitudes that underlie our behaviours. So it is unlikely that incentives alone would change the minds of those who are currently not keen on receiving a vaccine. Certainly, for those employees who do not feel strongly one way or the other, an incentive may be just the nudge they need; but others may perceive coercion, especially if they are in financial need and money is being offered. A NEW KIND OF CARROT A more promising approach might be to make desired activities contingent on vaccination. Loss aversion in behavioural economics states that people are more likely to act when they feel they are going to lose something if they otherwise did nothing. Companies could, for example, start to link access – like business travel, office space, or face-to-face interactions – to vaccination. This would not be unlike the vaccination requirements already in place for travel to areas in Africa or South America where diseases such as yellow fever are endemic. Social cohesion can be another driver. People like to be noticed for doing the right thing, especially by those whom they like and respect. Many companies are already leveraging leaders or “influencers” to share their vaccination experiences and speak openly about their decisions to get the jab. South Korea considers vaccine export curbs to secure local supply Ultimately, that decision boils down to trust. Employers can play a critical role in building this trust by educating and sharing accurate information with employees, including facts about the benefits of vaccines, company policies and insurance coverage. NO JAB, NO JOB? For many companies, having employees who decline vaccination (43 per cent of survey responses) and managing a workforce with only some members who have been vaccinated (44 per cent) are bigger concerns. After all, businesses have an obligation to provide a healthy and safe workplace, and each company has its own set of risks and responsibilities. Employers and employees should work together to determine whether reasonable accommodation can be made based on job function, and whether there is flexibility that would make vaccination less critical. Circumstances vary vastly depending on industry: in health care there is a responsibility not just for the health and safety of employees but also the people placed in their care, whereas in professional services there is less infection risk and some forms of work can be done remotely. What’s vital is that employers set appropriate expectations about returning to the office and the need for precautions and safe practices like wearing masks and social distancing. Even as the number of individuals being vaccinated increases, various forms of public health restrictions will still be in place until we see herd immunity in our communities. LONG ROAD AHEAD The vaccine roll-out in the Asia-Pacific is still in its early days. As with the response to the pandemic, there is no playbook, and employers have an important role to play in this global effort. While some are still exploring whether to incentivise, mandate or facilitate access to vaccines, all businesses need to start putting together a communications strategy to provide guidance and support at this critical juncture. A thoughtful plan could make the difference between confusion or resistance; and understanding, adoption, and a successful return to pre-pandemic life. Vicki Fan is CEO of Mercer Hong Kong.