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When Covid conflict infects the workplace

The discussion around vaccine mandates, lockdowns and other restrictions on freedoms is becoming increasingly polarised and in many nations, there is anger in the streets. What happens if that anger boils over into the office?

The discussion around vaccine mandates, lockdowns and other restrictions on freedoms have been one of the most polarising elements of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In many nations, anger has flowed into the streets as thousands of people mobilised, not necessarily anti-vaccine but united in their opposition to government-imposed measures.

In Canada, the ‘Freedom Convoy’ shut down the centre of Ottawa, blocked the streets to the nation’s Parliament and one of the country’s border with the US.

Protests against mandatory vaccinations became a weekly occurrence in Belgium’s capital, Brussels, while a protest movement lingered for more than three weeks in New Zealand.

Masks have been the most visual element of the pandemic, and their presence lingers particularly on transport and within enclosed spaces such as offices and schools even as other health-related measures are wound back.

But they are no less explosive as a trigger.

The Unites States’ Federal Aviation Administration reported 6,300 unruly-passenger incidents between 2021 and early 2022 – more than 4,500 of them mask-related. Before the pandemic, such incidents were usually one-offs.

“People are being tested the longer the pandemic goes on,” says Donal Laverty, Consulting Partner at Baker Tilly Mooney Moore.

“If you’re autonomously motivated, you’ve got control, and you’ve got a sense of choice.

“Once you create a control around that, you start to move away from voluntary compliance to pressured compliance.

“That’s what happening now two years in, you’re now beginning to see this pressure at various points of the spectrum, and that’s human nature.”

The danger for employers is when the anger and violence demonstrated on the streets leaks into the office. How can they mitigate the risk?

Understand the motivations

While most people have generally been supportive of vaccines, there has always been an element of hesitancy.

Initial concerns when vaccines first rolled out at the start of 2021 were around health concerns. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for example, in exceedingly rare cases, caused a type of blood clot but despite reassurances that the benefits far outweighed the risk, people did not want to take that risk.

The current anti-vax movement is, however, no longer fuelled purely by fears about vaccines and harmful side-effects

Health is no longer the sole, or even the prevailing, driver in the movement and rallies are dominated by anger. Propelling that anger is the issue of compliance, says Mr Laverty.

“Employers are starting to realise that this is the realms of behavioural science, and they are finding it difficult because that’s not what employers do.”
– Donal Laverty

“One of the thorniest issues in the workplace that we’ve seen within our own client base is that you still have a tension between vaccinated and unvaccinated,” he says.

“What we’re seeing is unvaccinated employees are quite troubled by workplace policies and guidance that seems to distinguish them, and it seems to identify or mark them out.”

One of the key issues employers need to understand is the motivations among affected parties in their workplace for not wanting to be vaccinated.

“There are two sides to these stories,” Mr Laverty says.

“Some of those people who are anti-vax feel that they’re being pushed into a corner, feel that they’ve been made to disclose information about themselves, or disclose medical information.”

Mr Laverty says there is a growing number of organisations examining how they live alongside this virus rather than take backwards steps.

“An employee can assert their freedom of expression and belief,” he says.

“Employers are starting to realise that this is the realms of behavioural science, and they are finding it difficult because that’s not what employers do, they’re not set up to be behavioural scientists.

“It ultimately comes back to the three E’s for any aspect of how you bring along staff. That’s the encouragement piece, the engagement, and the education.”

Managing workplace relationships

Employers should recognise their limitations in turning the opinion of their employees and consider whether outside resources coming from positions of expertise would have better cut-through.

“I have clients who have brought in external medical advisors and they’ve held kind of roadshows within their organisation,” Mr Laverty says.

“As the employer, they are not skilled at answering questions around vaccines, but they have brought in medical experts to provide reassurance to employees.”
– Donal Laverty

“As the employer, they are not skilled at answering questions around vaccines, but they have brought in medical experts to provide reassurance to employees.

“That’s been supported by senior management, providing messages around trust in those cases of people who are vaccine-hesitant, listening to the concerns of employees and then acting with empathy.”

It is also important not to discount the anxieties of people on the opposite side, those that fear increased susceptibility from working with unvaccinated, says Mr Laverty.

“It’s trying to provide that encouragement, it’s trying to provide that education piece, it’s putting in place very practical measures,” he says.

“It’s retaining the mask in the workplace, it’s encouraging and making sure that daily testings are happening because you still have a duty of care to all of your other employees.

“Ultimately, it’s about managing relationships with the end goal of keeping everyone safe.”

Who has the employer’s back?

Employment dispute tribunals in the UK have ruled in favour of employers enforcing health and safety measures during 2021.

The most pertinent UK case was the dismissal of a delivery driver who refused to wear a face mask as required by a client while on the client’s premises, which was deemed fair.

Vaccine mandates have been implemented to varying degrees of success – it was authorised for the aged care sector, but MPs rejected a similar proposal for the health sector.

But the debate about vaccine mandates is unlikely to disappear. There is support in some quarters about making seasonal flu vaccines as a condition of employment for those who work in the health and social care sector.

“Future challenges around mandates will weigh up the elements of data collection, gathering personal information and human rights, against the risks to personal and public safety,” Mr Laverty says.

After two years, the pandemic is taking its toll on mental health and while many people want to put the whole episode behind them, others remain fearful for the health of themselves and their loved ones.

Mr Laverty says the stress has elevated mental wellness as a key issue.

“I’ve seen it in our own relationships, there is an underlying stress and tension that has never been there before,” he says.

“Employers should engage in open, transparent communication with employees and empowering line managers with how to deal and avoid conflict.

“Create and cultivate an atmosphere of acceptance and engagement.”

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Baker Tilly Mooney Moore

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