An employee comes to work coughing. He has a headache and he’s weak. He can barely concentrate on his sales figures. But he doesn’t want to miss today’s all-important staff meeting or tomorrow’s special luncheon for a colleague. By Day 4, he’s too weak to get out of bed, finds out he has the flu and stays home. Meanwhile at the office, three of his eight coworkers came down with the same symptoms he had on day 1.
Employers know the drill: Workers come to work ill when they should stay home. And many could have had an annual influenza shot to reduce the risk of illness for themselves and their colleagues. In fact, the flu causes employees to lose 111 million workdays and employers $7 billion in sick days and productivity losses a year, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On top of that, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices reports an uptick in flu cases this season.
The CDC estimates that the flu vaccination prevented 5 million flu-related illnesses and 71,000 hospitalizations for flu-induced conditions last season. But despite the proven benefits of flu shots, the CDC says that only 20% of workers get vaccinated.
Flu shots could help keep employees healthy and productive, and prevent the spread of illness at home and at work. So, what’s stopping employees from getting vaccinated?
Kathleen Ellmore, vice president of engagement sciences at Silverlink, a Welltok company providing communication campaigns, told HR Dive that people avoid getting flu shots for the same reasons they put off doing other things that make them uncomfortable. The common reasons, which Ellmore refers to as “barriers,” are: “I didn’t think of it,” “I’m afraid of needles” or “I have concerns about the side effects.”
Engaging employees in their own healthcare
Encouraging employees to get flu shots is one way to get them engaged in their own healthcare.
“Healthcare is a $3 trillion industry in which consumers must engage,” says Ellmore. And that includes not only getting their annual flu shots, but also taking charge of their health, she adds. The mission is to motivate employees as consumers so they can make sound choices and act in their own best interest health-wise.
Engagement through value and personalization
Simply telling employees they should get flu shots isn’t enough. Ellmore says employers need a marketing-like strategy that, in the case of flu shots, explains how employees stand to benefit personally from immunization. They also must test and try various strategies to find out what works best. For instance, employees who are concerned about side effects might be instructed to see their physician or directed to the CDC’s website for detailed information on the topic.
Ellmore says organizations can use what’s known as an “incentive design” to get employees immunized or more in charge of their healthcare. One general health strategy her team tried involved offering chocolate and white milk to workers at one of her client companies. The goal was to offer workers something they might like as an incentive while getting them thinking about which of the two types of milk was the healthiest choice.
Employers also can use the “test and learn” strategy to discover which plan works best in engaging employees, says Ellmore. To encourage colon-rectal exams, her team tested different visual techniques on promotional materials, including communicating the message in cursive writing for a more personal touch as opposed to block printing and using an image of coffee — a favorite beverage — on the back of one piece.
Neither strategy proved successful, Ellmore says. But when her team targeted Spanish-speaking consumers using voice messages — one female and one male — the male voice was 80% more effective than the female voice in engagement.
Going beyond design
Sometimes engaging employees can be a lot simpler than either the “incentive design” or “test and learn” strategy. When employees say no to an idea, especially a benefit like the flu shot, Ellmore recommends trying the “second chance offer.” The response to a “no” is a simple “Are you sure?” She says the strategy can make someone reconsider getting a flu shot 30% of the time.
For employers looking to help workers stay healthy, Ellmore advises that they understand the value of engagement among the various demographics in their organizations, such as older employees, pregnant mothers, millennials and different ethnicities. Employers might have to try different forms of engagement to encourage workers to get flu shots. Ellmore also advises employers to make sure they’re getting through to employees, as they compete with all the other messages, or “noise,” workers receive.