Just in time for return-to-office and the start of the school year, Delta variant is flaring with a peak expected in October. Because of the recent surge in Covid-19 cases, some businesses are rethinking their RTO plans. This draws attention to the importance of the health-related information that employers are communicating to their employees.
The challenge of communicating about health topics
Business communication can be challenging even under ordinary circumstances. But this is a different kind of multi-layered communication challenge. The New York Times recently quoted 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 are complicated issues, and communicating about them is it’s own challenge.
Before Covid-19, few employers had reason to be aware of health communication as a field of study within Public Health. However, employers are now communicating about health-related information–perhaps more than they have in the past—and so can benefit from insights from the health communication field. Health information is often complex, and Covid-19 is no exception. Like public health and medical professionals, employers wish to share important health-related information in a way that contributes to positive outcomes, reduces confusion, maintains legal obligations, and builds professional relationships. These are goals the field of health communication supports.
An ‘infodemic’ around Covid-19
As the founder of Health Communication Partners, I’ve been speaking and working with health professionals about Covid-19 since last February. Even health experts who have weathered other epidemics are finding communication challenging during this pandemic.
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.” They added that “The stakes are higher in a digitized world.”
One of the results of this infodemic is that each of us has had our individual, collective and organizational health literacy put to the test over the last 18 months. Employees have had to learn to use health information to make better risk assessments as individuals to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy during lockdown, quarantine, and work-from -home. Return-to-Office means that employees have started making a new set of individual risk assessments because of the imminent change in their physical environments.
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Just when many people were getting used to the idea of returning to the office, the delta variant–now the dominant strain in the US–complicated the RTO picture. These rapidly evolving scenarios can challenge our health literacy and make it feel hard to trust our own judgment. Employees may 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?
The elephant in the room
Significant to everyone’s return-to-office plans is the fact that about half of the US population who can be vaccinated has been vaccinated. Then there’s the other half. 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. Just last week, the Wall Street Journal ran the story “CDC Director Says She’s Struggling to Communicate With Americans About Covid-19 Amid Politics, Mistrust.” Recently, The Hill.com reported on a Fox news Poll which says that “Nearly a third of Trump voters say they don’t ever plan to get vaccinated against COVID-19,” adding, “The findings underscore the immense partisan divide at play in the nationwide effort to vaccinate Americans against a virus that has ravaged the world for more than 18 months.”
Health Communication Partners has been involved in targeted vaccine communication. I’ve recently released a podcast episode about some of what I’ve learned from trying to communicate across the aisle. Like many health professionals, employers are communicating with people who are unvaccinated as well as those who are vaccinated.
There’s hope–and trust
But there is some hope. A worldwide 2019 public relations study of people’s trust in institutions found that people trust their employers more than any other institution: “Globally, ‘my employer’ (75 percent) is significantly more trusted than NGOs (57 percent), business (56 percent), government (48 percent) and media (47 percent).” The WHO saw value in making use of employers as sources of reliable health information, and 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.
Through Health Communication Partners, I’ve seen how professionals are individually and collectively navigating the difficult terrain of communicating about health–during a global pandemic. Now I’ll offer employers some of the advice I’ve shared with thousands of health professionals about health communication.
First of all, I’ll assume you know all the mandatory workplace safety rules, and that you are already receiving the latest Covid-19 information from vetted sources. This is more about how you’re communicating this information to employees. For example, in “Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace,” OSHA recommends employers “Educate and train workers on your COVID-19 policies and procedures using accessible formats and in language they understand.” But how do you do this? Here are three steps you can take:
1. Use 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 ‘via multiple methods:’ multimodal. In linguistics, a mode is a way that meaning is created and carried. Examples of modes include speech, written text, images, and movement. Any work that combines more than one mode is called ‘multimodal.’ For instance, videos combine images and sound. Videos are, by nature, multimodal, whereas a photograph is monomodal. Health communication professionals know that multiple modes are good for communication. They are more memorable and also support learning better than single modalities.
What do to:
- Make sure written materials are accompanied by images. Not just pretty pictures, but graphics that help tell the story.
- Check to see that text is broken up into small paragraphs. Use headings and bullet points where possible. Everyone finds this more manageable and scannable.
2. Start where they are
There’s a communication problem I’ve seen many health professionals get themselves into. It’s when they say what they want to say, instead of what their audience needs to hear. It’s a subtle but important distinction. Get it wrong and it can lead to wasted time and disconnected communication. How do you avoid this? I’ll tell you the same thing I’ve told Public Health and Medical professionals: ask.
What to do:
- 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 and concerns, whatever they are, in your communication. One way to do this is to make up a FAQ sheet and put the questions most often asked near the top of this list—whether or not you think they’re the most important questions.
3. Remember that context matters
Now, 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 living with this pandemic for so long.
What to do:
- Repeat yourself. 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. When your employees first read that memo they’ve all been waiting for, they’ll be reading it through the lens of their own perspective–and emotions.
- 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 send the same exact message twice. Instead, lead with key takeaways and reinforce the main message
This is a chance for you as an employer to show that your RTO activity is rooted in science–and in employees’ best interests. If your organization would like more support, simply fill out the form below.