Community Conversation hears how Discovery has implemented mandatory vaccination

Discovery considered that all employees have rights, both vaccinated and unvaccinated.

In September, Discovery announced that it would make Covid-19 vaccinations mandatory for all staff from the start of next year. Since then, a number of other organisations have made similar pronouncements.

In this Community Conversation, sponsored by Workday, Discovery chief people officer Zimkhitha Saungweme presented an update on their journey, touching on the legal considerations as well as their ongoing employee engagement process.

Zimkhitha started by saying it is important to note that Discovery operates in four locations across the country and has 10,650 permanent staff, 432 non-permanent, and 5,221 others. As of 1 of November, 83 percent of employees were vaccinated.

Dr Ronald Whelan, chief commercial officer of Discovery Health and lead for Discovery’s Covid-19 task team, highlighted that businesses don’t work in isolation, but in an environment. “And when you look at the environment in South Africa in the last 17 months, South Africa has experienced a public tragedy, with more than 255,000 excess deaths since May 2020.”

What this means, says Ron, is that all of us living in South Africa had a 41 percent greater risk of dying in the past 18 months.

“Above 55 to 60 percent of Discovery’s Covid-19 admissions have been from people between the ages of 18 to 49, and that’s our working class population. But what's scarier than that, is that in the third wave statistics, Discovery’s admissions were between the ages of 0 to 17 and this is one of the reasons why the team vaccination is important,” he said.

He explained that as much as Covid-19 has a severe impact on the elderly population, it's important to keep in mind that Covid-19 does have an impact on other age groups as well.

Vaccine efficacy

Ronald shared that from their research on the vaccine at Discovery, the risk of dying if you are unvaccinated against Covid-19 is about eight to 10 times higher than the risk of dying from flu. “If, however, you are vaccinated you reduce the risk to such an extent that you have a 28 percent lower risk of dying from Covid-19.”

Furthermore, the vaccine reduces the risk of infection by 50 to 80 percent, of hospital admission by 65 to 90 percent, of admission to ICU/high care by 70 to 82 percent, and your risk of death by 93 percent.

Considerations for mandatory vaccination across the workplace
Zimkhitha noted that they have received a lot of questions as to how they arrived at the decision to make vaccines mandatory.

“Over and above the company perspective, we started thinking about the ‘why’ and we took into account our company purpose, which is to make people healthy, to protect and enhance their lives. We also took into account our values.”

She explained that there were also many engagements taking into account the organisation’s moral, social, ethical and legal obligations, culture, purpose and values to form the backbone of the policy.

In unpacking their “why”, Zimkhitha said they have structured that into three areas.

  1. Legal considerations: These are the legal frameworks balancing the rights of all employees, the employer, the workplace, and the public health imperative.

  2. Moral and ethical considerations: This is in alignment with the organisational culture, values and purpose, ethical considerations of providing a safe working environment.

  3.  Operational benefits and risks: Consideration of operational, legal, organisational and reputational risks and benefits.

“We certainly considered that all employees have rights: not only the vaccinated employees, but also the unvaccinated ones. We have also taken into account that employers and businesses have rights and obligations especially to a safe workplace.

“Around constitutional rights we acknowledged that rights are not absolute. While I might have rights to freedom of choice and what happens to my body, those rights are not absolute.

“In the overall approach we have been very specific about making sure that we allow our employees who are objecting to the vaccination to follow a process that is highly engaging and that includes reasonable accommodation,” explained Zimkhitha.

Implementation approach
“We have agreed upfront – before getting on with the process – on a key set of guiding principles, which has been important in terms of making sure that there is fairness throughout the process,” said Zimkhitha.

The guidelines are:

  • Mutual respect
  • Balance the rights of all employees
  • Reasonable accommodations
  • Proactive engagement

Process followed
In following the thinking that went into the why and the approach, from the very beginning the team were transparent with their employee base, said Zimkhitha.

“We informed our employees of the intention to roll out the mandatory vaccination policy at the beginning of September to allow for enough time to engage with the team. It was very critical that we didn’t just launch and communicate the mandatory vaccination policy, and make it effective immediately because we understood that there’s an opportunity to engage proactively with our employees.

“We were quite clear that as much as we are encouraging getting to 100 percent vaccination for eligible employees, we did at that point also communicate quite openly the opportunity for employees to object to the vaccinations, and also spoke to the formal process that we’re going to put in place around managing and processing objections.”

Zimkhitha said this was followed by extensive consultation, which is still a work in progress. “The consultation included really moving from the initial communication where we communicated the mandatory vaccination policy, to webinars – and these webinars are running at group level. So where we get all our employees in one virtual room, and educate them.

“Ron mentioned that the company was sitting on 83 percent of our employees being vaccinated. And a lot of that has come as a result of getting people the information that they need, having the patience and investing in the time in terms of the group conversations and that really moved from group sessions to sessions that are led by CEOs for each of our business units. We also make sure people who require clinical consultation receive it.”

Zimkhitha shared that they are quite clear that as much as they are encouraging 100 percent vaccination they also believe that the success of any mandatory vaccination policy will be confirmed by getting as many people vaccinated voluntarily as possible.

Lessons learnt so far
Zimkhitha shared that at Discovery they believe you learn every day, and the lesson they have learnt from the process is that you need to understand and fully appreciate your workforce.

“We have also learnt about engagement and data visibility. It is absolutely critical for companies who are thinking about this, to be clear in terms of how they are going to gather data.

“At Discovery, we have a self-reporting process, where employees who are vaccinated go onto our HR system, and upload the proof of vaccination.”

The other lesson learnt, Zimkhitha concluded, was around communication, and the importance of cascading the communication through the entire organisation, at all levels.