Will cash incentives work for COVID-19 vaccines? Here's what past research says

As COVID-19 vaccination efforts continue nationwide, some employers may offer their workers bonuses as a means of encouraging them to get their shots.

That's already happening at Houston Methodist, where CEO Marc Boom, MD, told some 26,000 employees that they can look forward to a $500 bonus contingent on them getting vaccinated, among other eligibility criteria.

The logic behind cash incentives is intuitive — tell workers they'll get cash for doing something and it's more likely they'll do it. But is it always that simple?

Not necessarily. Employee incentive structures, in the form of hard cash or an employee of the month award, don't always have the positive outcomes employers intend, especially if they aren't constructed carefully, according to an article from Boston-based Harvard Business School.

The article outlines numerous studies conducted by Harvard Business School highlighting the potential consequences of employee incentive structures, though the research does not specifically involve influencing employees to get a vaccine. One such study found that peer comparison can be a stronger motivator than a cash bonus.

Robert E. Litan, PhD, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in August wrote that paying people to be immunized, like giving candy to a scared child after a shot, could buck Americans' hesitations toward getting vaccinated.

Whether a cash bonus will make employees more willing to get their shots or not, Houston Methodist has embraced the strategy, and other employers could follow suit.

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