If you’re communicating with employees about return-to-office, this episode shares three quick steps you can take to improve how you communicate about health topics.
I’ve been watching the last couple weeks as employers are having to communicate with employees about health topics involved with return to office policies. If you or someone you know needs to communicate with employees about health-related topics right now, this episode’s for you. We’ll take a close look at what’s going on and I’ll share some steps you can take to improve your health communication practices.
Hi everybody. I’m Dr. Anne Marie Liebel. This is 10 Minutes to Better Patient Communication from Health Communication Partners, an indep health-equity focused education and communication consultancy. That’s right, consultancy! If your organization needs expert help on any topic in this series, visit healthcommunicationpartners.com.
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RTO meets delta variant
Now, it’s Health Communication Partners’ 4th anniversary! And I think it’s fitting that in this episode I get to talk about, well, what I’ve been talking about for four years–but potentially to a new audience. Because just in time for return to office and the start the school year, the Delta variant is flaring, with peak expected in October. And because of the recent surge in Covid-19 cases, some businesses are rethinking their return to office plans. And this is what Drew my attention to the importance of the health-related information that employers are communicating. It’s not easy. Business communication can be challenging even under ordinary circumstances which these aren’t. This is a different kind of multi-layered communication challenge.
Recently, the New York Times interviewed Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard Business School professor, who said, “Devising a return-to-office policy is hard. It requires executives to watch the development of the virus, monitor the attitudes of their workers and sort through thorny legal and personnel issues regarding the virus.” These issues are complex and so is communicating about them.
Communicating about health topics
Before Covid, few people had reason to be aware of health communication as a specialized skill, or as a field of study. This same NY Times story ends with “everyone is struggling.” Even the health experts find this challenging. I’ve been speaking and working with health professionals about COVID since last February. Just last week, the Wall Street Journal ran a story titled, “CDC Director Says She’s Struggling to Communicate With Americans About Covid-19 Amid Politics, Mistrust.” I have to link cities in the show notes of course and there’s more individual Collective and organizational health literacy has been put to the test over 18 months of making sense of Covid health literacy is you’re not alone don’t worry I’ll drop some links in the show notes.
Our individual, collective and organizational health literacy has been put to the test over 18 months of making sense of Covid-19. If you’re not sure what health literacy is, you’re not alone, don’t worry, I’ll drop some links in the show notes. Last year, The World Health Organization identified an infodemic around Covid-19, explaining: “Infodemics are an excessive amount of information about a problem that makes it difficult to identify a solution. Infodemics can spread mis and disinformation and rumors during a health emergency. Infodemics can hamper an effective response and create confusion and distrust among people.”
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Rapidly evolving situations
Your employees, all of us as individuals, really, were using health information to make individual risk assessments throughout the past 18 months during lockdown, quarantine, work-from-home. Now return-to-office means people are making those individual risk assessments but now in a different physical environment, right? That’s another layer challenge. Granted we’ve seen this one coming for a while. But just when we got used to the idea, the Delta variant–now the dominant strain in the US–has complicated the RTO picture. These rapidly evolving scenarios can challenge our health literacy and make it feel hard to trust our own judgment. Your employees might be wondering, “how bad are the variants? Should we be concerned? If I go to the office am I going to get my kids sick?”
And then there’s the elephant in the room. The one in the title of that Wall Street Journal article. When it comes to vaccine communication, a primary challenge for health professionals has been taking into account the depth of the politicization of this topic. Recently The Hill.com reported on a Fox news poll, saying “Nearly a third of Trump voters say they don’t ever plan to get vaccinated against COVID.” I’ve written about my own vaccine communication campaign efforts and some of what I’ve learned from trying to communicate across the aisle. I’ll put that link in the notes, too. Because like many health professionals, employers are communicating with the unvaccinated as well as the vaccinated.
Hope, and trust
But there is some hope. A worldwide public relations study in 2019 of people’s trust in institutions found that people trust their employers more than any other institution. More than NGOs, business, government, and media. The WHO saw value in making use of employers as sources of reliable health information. So they partnered with the International Labor Organization (the US is a member). Part of the advantage of utilizing employers is that, according to that study, trust already exists in the employer/employee relationship.
Now I’m going to assume you know all of the mandatory workplace safety rules and that you’re already sourcing the latest Covid information from that its sources now I’m going to share some of the advice I’ve shared with thousands of health professionals about health communication. All right I’m going to tell you about three things. The first one is multimodality.
OSHA says “Communicate supportive workplace policies clearly, frequently, and via multiple methods to promote a safe and healthy workplace.” There’s a term for that ‘via multiple methods’ and it’s multimodality. In linguistics a mode is a way that meaning is created and carried. Examples of modes include speech, written text, images, signs, movement, sounds. Any work that combines more than one mode is called ‘multimodal.’ For instance, videos. They combine images, sound, usually movement. By nature, they’re multimodal, whereas a photograph is monomodal. Health communication pros know that multiple modes are good for communication. They are memorable, and they help people learn better than just monomodal.
So what do you do? Make sure written materials you share are accompanied by images. Not just pretty pictures, but graphics that help you tell the story, that themselves are meaningful. Also, Make sure your text is broken up into small paragraphs. Everyone finds this more manageable and scannable.
Start where they are
OK, secondly: Start where they are. There’s a communication problem I’ve helped many health professionals kinda get themselves out of. And that’s when they focus on what they want to say, instead of on what the audience needs to hear. It’s a subtle but important distinction. Get it wrong and it can lead to wasting your time and disconnected communication. How do you avoid this? I’ll tell you the same thing I tell doctors: ask.
Ask your employees what their questions and concerns are and listen to what they say. Bloomberg recently reported that “the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) leaders are developing their ‘post-reentry’ and work Environment policies, driven by recent results of a staff Survey.”
So do like the EPA and ask. Collect and prioritize people’s questions, whatever they are, whatever people actually ask you about. Put the questions most often asked near the top of whatever you share—whether or not you think they’re the most important things.
And finally: Context matters. About that elephant in the room…
The health communication pros I talk to are aware that people are motivated not just by logic but by emotion. Vaccinations, RTO and the delta variant are each emotionally charged topics, and you’re communicating about all of them together! Not to mention that everyone’s patience is razor thin these days after having lived with this pandemic for so long.
What to do? Health communication is one field where ‘redundancy’ is a good thing. It makes sense to repeat yourself, and communicate what you have to say multiple times. Why?
Our emotional and physical state has an impact on the sense we make of what we see, read, or hear. So don’t just communicate your message once. Sending another message at a later time gives people another chance to read or view it–when they could potentially be in a different emotional state. I wouldn’t say send the exact same message twice. Instead, lead with the key takeaways and reinforce the main message.
This is a chance for employers to show your activity is rooted in science and in employees’ best interests. If you’d like more help, contact me. I’m Dr. Anne Marie Liebel. This has been 10 Minutes to Better Patient Communication from Health Communication Partners. Music and audio engineering by Joe Liebel.