Why COVID-19 vaccine mandates trigger a fight-or-flight response

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As hospital executives work to understand the effects of COVID-19 vaccine mandates, brain science can help leaders understand why vaccine mandates make some employees feel threatened, according to a Sept. 23 report in Harvard Business Review.

Vaccine mandates can bring about a state of threat in the brains of employees who don't want to get vaccinated, according to the Neuroleadership Institute. Vaccine mandates can trigger fight-or-flight responses because they violate an individual's autonomy. Autonomy is one of the five most important drivers of reward and threat in the brain. 

Autonomy and the freedom to make choices can also give individuals the feeling of a reward. One study found that when employees were given the opportunity to decorate their workspaces how they saw fit, their productivity increased up to 25 percent. When individuals feel their choices are being removed, they feel frustrated and angry. These feelings inhibit employees' ability to focus and collaborate, according to the report.

To offset feeling threatened, hospital leaders can give employees a sense of autonomy by allowing them to choose when, where or how they receive the vaccine. Another way to reduce employees' threat state is to trigger their reward drivers. For example, offering team lunches after vaccination or extra paid time off.

Hospital leaders should also try to offer their employees transparent communications, even if the answer is, "I don't know." Sharing the complete truth, even if it's not what employees want to hear, is better than getting no answers at all, according to the report.


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