The Business Case for Leaders Promoting the New Boosters

With a triple pandemic of COVID, flu, and RSV hitting the US hard this winter with an explosion of cases, business executives need to take the lead on promoting the newly-updated boosters. Doing so will help reduce the number of sick days taken by their workers, minimize COVID outbreaks and superspreader events in their companies, reduce employee fears about returning to the office, and position executives as trustworthy participants in stakeholder capitalism.

Research shows that the new boosters from Pfizer and Moderna, which are bivalent - meaning they target both Omicron and the original COVID strain - are very safe, similar to current vaccines. They are also more effective than previous vaccines against the Omicron variants, which are prevalent in the US and elsewhere around the globe.

The boosters are widely available and paid for by the government. Unfortunately, uptake has been slow, with health officials expressing grave concerns over the small numbers of people getting booster shots.

The reason for low uptake stems from vaccine hesitancy and lack of knowledge. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, less than a third intend to get the new boosters. That’s despite the fact that we have hundreds of COVID-related deaths per day right now, and many additional deaths from flu and RSV as part of the triple pandemic.

The consequences for executives and their teams can be dire. Nobody wants their staff - or themselves - to become part of these statistics.

Yet what are executives doing about it? Not much. That’s despite serious recent outbreaks at major companies that mandated office returns, such as at Google or at CalPERS, the $441.9 billion California Public Employees' Retirement System.

By failing to take action, they are falling into the omission bias. This term refers to a dangerous judgment error - a cognitive bias - that downplays the costs of inaction in our minds.

Executives need to recognize the consequences of failing to encourage new booster shots. The more employees get shots, the less sick days they will take. It will also lower the chance that staff will have to permanently reduce their hours or even withdraw from the labor force.

Similarly, advocating for boosters will minimize COVID outbreaks in a company. Doing so avoids the bad PR from such outbreaks, as well as the decreased morale afflicting staff asked to return to the office.

Last, but far from least, comes the crucial role for executives to serve as trustworthy exemplars of what the Business Roundtable calls the new purpose of companies: stakeholder capitalism. A critical aspect of stakeholder capitalism involves “supporting the communities in which we work.” And there’s little doubt that reducing COVID among company employees supports broader community health and wellbeing.

So what should executives do? Rather than mandating boosters, a much better approach is creating appropriate norms and nudging employees to engage in win-win behaviors using behavioral science-based approaches.

Executives need to both publicly advocate for the new boosters and get the shot themselves. The CEO at one of my client organizations wrote up a blog post for an internal company newsletter about the benefit of getting the bivalent booster, accompanied by a photo of himself getting the jab. She also strongly encouraged her managers to get the booster and discuss doing so with their team members. The company also brought in a well-respected epidemiologist to answer questions and address concerns among staff. The company offered paid time off for getting the shot, along with sick leave for any side effects. Such behavioral science-informed approaches help benefit company bottom lines by reducing sick days, addressing worker resistance to coming to the office, minimizing PR fiascos, and helping executives be on the front lines of stakeholder capitalism.

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