As recently as late June, many U.S. businesses were envisioning that workers would soon be returning to office – at least on a part-time basis – as Covid-19 cases in the U.S. held steady or were on the decline amid vaccination efforts across the country.

In addition, the Center for Disease Control announced people who had received their vaccine shots could go maskless indoors for the first time since the start of the pandemic. For many organizations, things were looking up.

Even amid that optimism, vaccinated employees had lingering doubts and worries about mingling with unvaccinated staff, according to a survey conducted in the last week of June by Perceptyx, an employee-listening and people-analytics platform company based in Temecula, Calif.

While 44 percent of unvaccinated employees said at the time said they felt very little or no stress or anxiety when near other unvaccinated co-workers, only about 19 percent of vaccinated people felt the same under the same conditions, the report revealed. In addition, about 41 percent of vaccinated workers said they had “quite a bit” or “a great deal” of stress working around people who weren’t protected with the vaccine.

Remote workers weren’t immune to these concerns, the study showed. Eighty-two percent of vaccinated employees who telecommuted reported feeling some, quite a bit or high levels of anxiety when considering going back to the office and being alongside unvaccinated staff.

The findings painted a clear picture: instead of being considered as a safe environment that fostered collaboration and creativity, the office risked becoming seen as an unsafe space that stokes fear and anxiety for vaccinated employees and that eventually would spark resistance to in-person work.

Simmering tensions

Now, only weeks after the survey was conducted and as Covid-19 is surging again, those fears may only deepen. On July 27, CDC officials warned that vaccinated people who caught the Delta variant could infect other people and should wear masks indoors in areas with high rates of infection.

“It seems like just when we had the hope of getting out of the pandemic, we were pulled right back in with this Delta variant,” said Brett M. Wells, Perceptyx’s director of people analytics.

To be sure, tensions for those who were working in the office already were simmering between unvaccinated and vaccinated employees even before health crisis began worsening, the Perceptyx survey suggests.

For employees who worked in a physical workspace in June, 45 percent said they felt peer pressure to remove their mask at work. The pressure was felt more strongly by the vaccinated (47 percent) than the unvaccinated (39 percent).

“To see that so many employees have felt peer pressure to remove their masks — that’s alarming,” Wells said. “I’m sure plenty of vaccinated people still want to wear masks because that’s what’s making them feel most comfortable being in a physical workplace in close proximity to others.”

In addition, 53 percent of vaccinated employees said they would feel comfortable returning to a workplace if 70 percent of staff were vaccinated — the level where so-called herd immunity is considered attainable. At the same time, about 25 percent of unvaccinated workers said they would be comfortable with a workplace that was less than 10 percent vaccinated.

Wells says if employers aren’t careful, these more relaxed attitudes on the part of unvaccinated people could create super-spreading events when workplaces reopen.

Being safe and feeling safe

These differences in concerns among vaccinated and unvaccinated workers – especially with Covid-19 cases skyrocketing again – means employers must reconsider how, when and if they should bring staff currently working remotely back to office to ensure their safety and well-being, experts say.

“Employers are watching the rate of community transmission as they are making decisions about whether and how to bring remote workers back,” said Jeff Levin-Scherz, M.D., population health leader at business consulting firm Willis Towers Watson.

Keeping people safe with already familiar pandemic protocols is the first step, he says. This includes enforcing mask mandates made by health officials or the employer, socially distancing workspaces, sanitizing workspaces and providing good ventilation systems.

At the same time, a rising number of employers are making it harder for people to remain unvaccinated, he notes. These measures include making vaccines mandatory, requiring workers to apply for a religious or medical exemption and having unvaccinated people get tested once or twice a week.

Businesses have to be proactive in helping motivate unvaccinated staff to get the shot, Levin-Scherz says.

Employers need to be “working really hard to get as many people the vaccine as possible. It might not be 100 percent, but we want it really, really high,” he said.

Wells at Perceptyx agrees.

“I think organizations are in a difficult situation and are going to have to make a difficult choice,” he said. “In all likelihood, the choice will be that they are going to require vaccines if you want to return to the office or you’re going to have to be protected.”

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