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Why Business Leaders Need to Promote the New Booster Shots

Personal Perspective: How to encourage booster shots using psychology.

Key points

  • As the efficacy of older vaccines gradually fades, leaders should promote the newly-updated booster shots.
  • This will aid companies in reducing sick days, minimizing PR fiascos, and facilitating stakeholder capitalism.
  • Establishing company norms and using nudging techniques can help.
Des Moines Public Schools/Flickr
Source: Des Moines Public Schools/Flickr

Business executives need to take the lead on promoting the newly-updated, Omicron-specific booster shots. Doing so will help reduce the number of sick days taken by workers, minimize COVID outbreaks and superspreader events in companies, reduce employee fears about returning to the office, and position executives as trustworthy participants in stakeholder capitalism.

Research shows that the new boosters from Pfizer and Moderna, which are bivalent—meaning they target both Omicron and the original COVID strain—are very safe, similar to current vaccines. They are also more effective than previous vaccines against the Omicron variants, which are prevalent in the U.S. and elsewhere around the globe. The boosters are widely available and are authorized for anyone over 12 years of age.

The Slow Uptake of Booster Shots Is a Crisis Waiting to Happen

Unfortunately, these recommendations are largely falling on deaf ears. Only 7.6 million Americans received the new booster in September, the first month it became widely available.

The reason for low uptake stems from vaccine hesitancy and lack of knowledge. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, less than a third intend to get the new boosters.

This low number is not surprising, given an Ipsos poll showing that 65 percent believe there is no risk, or only a small risk, in returning to their normal, pre-COVID life. That belief would not be a problem if we didn’t still have hundreds of COVID-related deaths per day. Moreover, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects a new wave of COVID that could more than quadruple the current infection rate. That estimate aligns with projections of a major wave by the FDA.

The consequences of slow booster uptake for executives and their teams can be dire. We have known since early 2022 that, according to a CDC study, the original vaccine’s effectiveness against Omicron fades quickly. Thus, those who received two doses of Moderna or Pfizer have a 71 percent less likelihood of being hospitalized with COVID compared to non-vaccinated people within the first month of getting the shots. But that effectiveness fades to 58 percent after four months and continues falling off after that. Someone who received the original two doses and then a booster gets initial protection of 91 percent against hospitalization immediately, but effectiveness falls to 78 percent after four months.

By now, it’s been many months since either the original vaccine series or the booster shots for the vast majority of Americans. That makes them seriously vulnerable to COVID—especially the most experienced, senior staff at companies, whose age tends to puts them in a high-risk category.

New Boosters Can Reduce Sick Days and Outbreaks

Nobody wants their staff—or themselves—to become part of these statistics. So, what are executives doing about it? Not much. That’s despite serious recent outbreaks at major companies that mandated office returns, such as Google and CalPERS, the $441.9 billion California Public Employees' Retirement System.

By failing to take action, they are falling into omission biasa dangerous judgment error, or cognitive bias, that downplays the costs of inaction. Such mental blindspots impact decision-making in all life areas, ranging from the future of work to relationships. Fortunately, recent research has highlighted effective and pragmatic strategies to defeat these dangerous judgment errors, such as by constraining our choices to best practices.

In fact, some are taking steps in the opposite direction in their desperation to drive staff to the office. For example, Goldman Sachs lifted vaccination requirements everywhere except in areas that have government vaccine mandates for being in the office.

What executives should be thinking about are the long-term consequences for their companies of failing to encourage new booster shots. Given the data, we can confidently state that the more employees get shots, the fewer sick days they will take. It will also lower the chances that staff will have to permanently reduce their hours or even withdraw from the labor force.

Similarly, advocating for boosters will minimize COVID outbreaks in a company. Doing so avoids the bad PR from such outbreaks, as well as the decreased morale afflicting staff when companies are trying to have their staff return to the office, as Google, CalPERS, and others have discovered.

Promoting New Boosters Serves Stakeholder Capitalism

The advocacy for new boosters fits into a larger narrative of supporting community health and well-being known as "stakeholder capitalism," which boosts worker confidence in leadership. Therefore, encouraging employees to have booster shots requires companies to establish norms and advocate publicly for this cause. To reduce employee fears about returning to the office, encouraging everyone to get the new booster is an excellent strategy. Whether a company pursues a flexible, team-led model in returning to the office, as I encourage my clients to do, or a more rigid, top-down approach, many employees will still have fears about COVID.

An internal survey my company just completed for a Fortune 500 SaaS company showed that 64 percent of respondents felt somewhat concerned about COVID in the office. That aligns with broader surveys, such as one by Ipsos in September showing that 57 percent of those surveyed feel somewhat concerned about COVID.

A critical aspect of stakeholder capitalism involves supporting the communities in which we work. And there’s little doubt that reducing COVID among company employees supports broader community health and well-being. According to Edelman’s trust barometer, business leaders are trusted more than the government, nonprofits, or the media. Around 86 percent of respondents to the trust barometer expect CEOs to speak out on issues such as pandemic impact. This trust and expectation make it only more urgent for executives who wish to be on the front line of stakeholder capitalism to speak out in favor of the new boosters.

How to Incentivize Employees to Get the New Shots

So what should executives do? Mandates are certainly not the way to go, given that we are transitioning from the emergency of the pandemic into a more endemic stage of learning to live with the virus. A much better approach is creating appropriate norms and nudging employees to engage in win-win behaviors using behavioral science-based approaches.

To create appropriate norms, executives need to both publicly advocate for the new boosters and get the shot themselves. The CEO at one of my client organizations wrote up a blog post for an internal company newsletter about the benefit of getting the bivalent booster, accompanied by a photo of herself getting the jab. She also strongly encouraged her C-suite and mid-level managers to get the booster and discuss doing so with their team members. The company also brought in a well-respected epidemiologist to talk about the benefits of getting a bivalent vaccine booster, answer questions, and address concerns among the staff.

To nudge employees, this company offered paid time off for getting the shot, along with sick leave for any side effects. It also created competition between different teams within the organization. Team members could submit anonymized proof of their shots, and the first three teams to have all their members get shots got treated to an all-expenses-paid weekend getaway. The company offered the same prize through a lottery for five employees across the organization who got the booster within the first three months it became available.

Other companies I work with adopted similar techniques for developing norms and nudging employees, customized to their own needs. Such approaches help create a context that encourages employees, without forcing, to protect their own health and that of others by getting the shot. Doing so helps benefit a company's bottom line by reducing sick days, addressing worker resistance to coming to the office, minimizing PR fiascos, and helping executives remain on the front lines of stakeholder capitalism.

Business leaders must take the initiative in promoting newly-updated bivalent booster shots. Doing so will reduce employee absenteeism, COVID outbreaks, and employee apprehension about returning to work while also serving the interests of all stakeholders.


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