Industry Insights

Vaccination: What’s HR’s role in managing employees?

Posted on 27/04/2021 by Paula Formantes


Everyone in Singapore is due to get their shots soon – what should HR prep for?

When talking about a seemingly imminent return to work that began last year, cautious leaders said it’ll only truly happen when viable vaccines get rolled out. Right now, countries have access to over a dozen approved vaccines and are at various stages of COVID-19 vaccine drives. While different national health authorities have accepted varied ‘brands’ for use in their country, one thing similar across all strategies is that governments have decided to make it voluntary.

This means citizens are entitled to refuse the vaccination – including in Singapore. They can be business travellers and refuse to get the shots. They can have the client- or customer-facing roles and say ‘no’. Even frontline workers in hospitals like nurses, doctors, and healthcare staff can refuse the vaccination. What’s more, employees aren’t obligated to share the reason for their decision.

This makes things a little tricky because experts estimated that about 70% to 90% of the world’s population needs to get vaccinated before life can return to a more comfortable version of ‘normal’. As Singapore moves along in its inoculation program, the government hinted that “if all goes according to plan”, the rest of the population will be able to get their shots soon.

Singapore is still in the process of vaccinating the priority groups and is currently managing shots for seniors above 60 years old. With the remaining residents eagerly waiting their turn, what role does HR have to help manage vaccinations?

What HR needs to know about vaccinations

The Ministry of Health (MOH) has an updated section on its website to answer frequently asked questions about Singapore’s vaccination program. Some are general info like which groups are prioritized – high-risk individuals or those living and working in jobs that have the potential for ‘rapid transmission’. Other FAQs get into further detail, for example:

  • Can business travellers jump the queue?

You won’t be able to get the shot earlier than your peers even if you’re required to travel for work. As vaccine supplies are currently limited, MOH said we need to prioritize healthcare and frontline workers, as well as the elderly first.

  • Who’s eligible for a free vaccination?

Singaporeans, PRs, persons on Long Term Visitor Pass, Employment Pass, S Pass, work permit, and dependant pass holders are all eligible for the free service. Singaporeans and PRs overseas can only receive the shot if they return to the city.

  • Who should avoid the vaccine?

Pregnant women, severely immunocompromised individuals, or those with a history of anaphylaxis or life-threatening reaction to allergies. Individuals on active cancer treatment should also avoid the mRNA-based vaccine for now. However, those with chronic illnesses like hypertension or diabetes are encouraged to receive shots.

  • Are there any known side effects?

While approved as safe for use by medical officials, there may be common side effects like other vaccines, including pain or soreness at the injection site, fever, headache, muscle pain, joint pain, lethargy, or lymph node swelling. Most side effects will resolve within three days. If they persist, MOH recommends seeing a doctor.

HR’s role in managing employee vaccinations

Since the vaccine program is a public health initiative in Singapore, both Dr. Low Kiang Wei, medical director at International SOS, and Lee Quane, regional director – Asia at ECA International agreed that HR has a crucial role to support employees as well as efforts around vaccinations. They both shared some suggestions for HR to help manage the ongoing exercise.

  • HR should enable flexibility at all levels.

Employees are getting vaccinated in a phased manner, so HR must ensure that leaders at all levels remain flexible on days when people are due for their shots, said Lee. If need be, introduce a temporary leave policy for staff. Leaders should also offer ample rest days or sick leave in case of side effects.

  • HR should communicate and educate.

Encouraging vaccinations is in the best interests of the business, as it makes workplaces safer and may ease job roles such as business travel or client meetings. There are plenty of media reports regarding vaccinations, but as Dr. Low pointed out, “sometimes there’s information overload”. HR should aim to organize open communication sessions to ensure employees understand the vaccines better. He also suggested ways to encourage the take-up rate.

“It starts with dispelling fear, a lot of fear comes from the misinterpretation of the COVID vaccine. A lot of people think that because the vaccine is rushed through, that the [research and approval] was not done properly. When in fact it may be that they upgraded the system we [usually] deal with and that they cut a lot of regulations and red tape.”

  • HR must remain impartial.

Everyone, including the HR practitioner, may have their own views about the vaccine and whether they’re keen on taking it or not. Whatever the case, Lee reminded that HR must remain impartial during conversations about the vaccine. “There are obviously people who for various reasons would probably not wish to take the vaccine, so it’s important for HR to be partial and respect people’s differing opinions on the matter, and for any advice that they do provide to be impartial.”

  • HR must remain inclusive.

With a voluntary program in place, there will always be a split take-up rate. At the end of this vaccine drive, there will thus be a split of vaccinated and non-vaccinated employees. Linked to impartiality, HR must also ensure inclusivity at the organization. “HR should ensure that all employees are treated fairly at each stage of the immunization process,” said Dr. Low. “[Ensure] that employees are not discriminated against and will be safe within one operating system [the workplace].”

All in all, the two leaders made clear that HR’s main role involves being an effective communicator - be it with helping employees cut through the noise or ensuring that team members stayed fair and flexible throughout the process. HR leaders can also consider their experience with past vaccination efforts, like the annual flu jab, to pick up learnings and prep for a partially vaccinated workforce.

“Going forward, HR will have to take on a more active role as they do with annual flu vaccinations,” Lee said. “Companies quite often organize these but don’t make them compulsory or mandatory. So I think it’s important for the organization to be the provider of impartial information, to calm [worried] vaccinated employees who are sitting next to people who haven’t been vaccinated. HR can show that ‘look, it’s not necessarily going to present a high risk to you’. It’s just important for HR to be the communicator in this area.”

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