Healing America’s Trauma; My Employer to the Fore

We are a year on from when the world as we knew it changed and we in New York City went into lockdown to stop the spread of a strange and terrifying new virus. It has been 12 months of personal grief (I lost my mother-in-law to Covid-19), economic challenge, interruption of life and forced separation from loved ones. Frontline and essential workers put their lives on the line daily by simply doing their jobs helping to ensure patients got treated, garbage was picked up and shelves in grocery stores were stocked. Many have worked from home, with children trying their best to learn remotely, while parents attempt to balance work and family. We have dealt with our fears of infection, from the first visit to the grocery store to the first run in the park for the healing power of natural light. We watched in horror the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha and acts of violence against the Asian and Pacific Islander communities, spurring a national reckoning with the devastation of systemic racism. We had a contentious and momentous election, followed by the unthinkable invasion of the Capitol by rioters intent on overturning the result. And our confidence in information has been profoundly shaken, with mainstream media seen as biased and political, while social media enables outlandish and fact-challenged myths and conspiracy theories such as micro-chips in vaccines. All of this has profoundly impacted the mental health of generations of Americans.

For all these reasons, we surveyed 2,500 people in the U.S. last weekend as part of a special Edelman Trust Barometer report for this anniversary - a year like no other in my lifetime. The business community needs these facts to know how to step into the void left by government, especially in the wake of last week’s science-defying decision by Texas to end mask wearing while only 16 percent of the people have been vaccinated. Here are the key findings from the report:

  1. We Are Not Ready to Resume Normal Life—Two-thirds of respondents say that they are still in pandemic survival mode, worried about their safety. Only one-third of Americans are prepared to dine indoors at a restaurant and less than one-third are willing to stay in a hotel. Just one quarter are ready to visit elderly family members; slightly more than one in four say they would send kids to school (27 percent) or go to the office (28 percent). Only 20 percent are ready to fly on a commercial airline and 16 percent will take public transit (bus or train). Less than 30 percent of people believe we will be back to normal by the end of the year. One explanation to these low scores could be explained by the deep concerns about the virus at 72 percent of the total population, 85 percent among Biden voters, 54 percent among Trump voters.
  2. The Pandemic Has Cut a Broad Swath of Human Suffering and Loss—Over half of our respondents (52 percent) say that they have personally contracted Covid or know someone who has. One-third of Latinx respondents know someone who has been hospitalized or who has died of Covid. Over one-quarter of respondents say they have lost their job, seen household income severely reduced, or are struggling to keep up with the monthly bills. Over half of the 18-34 years old respondents say that they have lost their job or are worried about not finding a new job for a long time.
  3. Trust in U.S. Institutions Continues to Be Low—Business is the most trusted to respond to the pandemic (48 percent), nearly level with last year at this time. Trust in government (43 percent) and NGOs (37 percent) to respond effectively and responsibly to the pandemic has plunged by 9 points. Media remains low at 39 percent.
  4. Trust Is Local in My Employer—Trust in My Employer to respond effectively and responsibly to the pandemic is at 68 percent trust, 20 points above business in general and 25 points ahead of government. Fifty-eight percent of the respondents say their employer is doing well at being a reliable source of useful and accurate information, versus 40 percent for business in general and 39 percent for government. Fifty-five percent trust the CEO of the organization they work for to tell the truth about the vaccine compared to 34 percent for CEOs in general. Over 80 percent of respondents expect pandemic updates from their employers on a weekly or more frequent basis.
  5. Less Trust in and Reliance on Major News Organizations for Pandemic Information—We see an astounding drop in major news organizations of 21 points, from 63 percent a year ago, to 42 percent today, as the go-to source of information on the pandemic. Respondents now rely on multiple sources of information from the CDC (40 percent) to their MD (28 percent, up 15 points) to local government (26 percent) and federal government (24 percent). Only 43 percent trust journalists to tell the truth about the Covid-19 vaccine. Fifty-six percent of respondents see social media as doing more harm than good.
  6. Most Trusted Spokespeople Are Medical Experts for Information on Vaccines—Your doctor is most trusted at 76 percent, followed by scientists (70 percent), and public health officials (63 percent). Celebrities are trusted by only 24 percent of respondents, calling into question the validity of featuring stars in public health outreach campaigns.
  7. Government Deeply Disappointing—Only 43 percent see national government is doing well on getting people vaccinated quickly, safely and fairly. One-third of respondents see government figuring out how to return things to normal in an eventual recovery, 11 points below business.
  8. Loss of Faith in National and Global Health Organizations’ Pandemic Response—There has been a deep decline (17 points) in trust for national health authorities such as the CDC and FDA to 67 percent, while global health authorities (WHO) is now at 57 percent. This is in sharp contrast to the pharmaceutical industry, which has a rise in trust of eight points to 57 percent in the past year. Important to note that this trust in the pharmaceutical industry is fifteen points below its high point in May 2020.
  9. Employee Democracy on Vaccination and Return to Work—Sixty percent said that employers should not force employees to return to the workplace if they prefer to work from home because they fear they could catch the virus. Sixty-nine percent said that employees should decide for themselves whether to get vaccinated. Employers are getting high marks for protecting their employees with PPE (61 percent), the number one trust driver.
  10. Huge Disparities in Vaccine Confidence—The general trend in vaccine confidence is positive, with 65 percent saying that they believe the vaccines are safe and effective for people like me. But women are 12 points below men (59 percent versus 71 percent) and those 35 to 54 are 21 points below those 55+ (56 percent versus 77 percent). There is also a 17-point gap between Biden and Trump voters (75 percent versus 58 percent). One explanation is that over a third of respondents believe they do not yet have the information necessary to decide whether to be vaccinated. This is especially true of those 18-34 years old (47 percent) and among Latinx communities (43 percent).
  11. Vaccine Access Outweighs Vaccine Hesitancy Among Communities of Color—The lack of vaccinations among those eligible in communities of color is driven more by access than hesitancy. Respondents in Black (43 percent), Latinx (42 percent) and Asian (34 percent) communities say they are qualified to get vaccinated but have been unable to get an appointment or get to a vaccination site compared to just 24 percent of white respondents.

The coming weeks will prove challenging for business because there will be moments when CEOs will have to contradict elected officials to protect their employees and consumers. I applaud companies such as Starbucks, Target and Walmart, which have continued their mask mandates in the face of political pressure and threatened consumer boycotts. I urge employers to educate their employees about vaccination and to set a moderate course on return to the workplace instead of using the sledgehammer approach. The biggest change for companies will be to recognize the necessity of acting as primary information source through newsletters or updates by the chief health officer. Let us remember the George Bernard Shaw quote, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” And let’s use the crisis to change our priorities, to commit to ending systemic racism, to make sustainability a part of corporate strategy and to get employees to a living wage that enables a decent life. In a time of deep division in the country, business must lead in an unprecedented manner, in order to live up to its promise to operate competently and behave ethically.

Richard Edelman is CEO.