Workplace Wellbeing

Polarizing Politics: How to Lead Productive Conversations with Employees

Here are five things HR leaders can do to reduce election anxiety and protect the psychological safety of their employees during the high stress of an election cycle.

Written by
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Heather Romano
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Clinically reviewed by
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    Voting is one of our fundamental rights. It’s a way to make our voice heard, and make a difference in our communities by weighing in on local issues and policies.

    While exercising this right is supposed to make us feel empowered, recent election cycles have been divisive, causing elevated levels of stress and anxiety.

    It’s a phenomenon observed by Dr. Robert Bright, a Mayo Clinic psychiatrist, who says that people on both sides of the political aisle are affected in a variety of ways.

    “We notice it in our bodies, the tension in our shoulders. We start getting irritable and short, and snapping at people, not trusting people, seeing people as the other or as the same. And that starts affecting our relationships at home. It starts affecting our work."

    How political tensions impact the workplace

    As an HR or People leader, election cycles present a unique set of challenges.

    The closer we get to election day, the more it’s on people’s minds and will naturally come up in workplace conversations. When we hear things that contradict our value systems, it can make us feel anxious, angry, upset, or worried. So many emotions can come up and conversations can quickly become heated.

    It’s so important for leaders to take care of their own mental health first. Modeling good self care protects and replenishes your energy, so you have the emotional resources required to support your employees—regardless of whether or not your political beliefs are aligned. 

    Feeling better and practicing self care during this election

    Your thoughts create your feelings, which lead to your actions, and sometimes ultimately, the result that proves your initial thought to be true. The key to taking good care of yourself during this season is changing your thoughts so you can change how you feel. 

    Here are five ways to manage the emotional turmoil you may be feeling:

    • Think about what you can control. Identify events and actions that you can control at this moment, such as exercising your right to vote. 
    • Focus on the present moment. Overthinking what will happen after the election can increase anger, worry, and fear. 
    • Consider physical movement. Engaging in activities that release endorphins can make you feel good physically and emotionally, and also be a healthy distraction from your thoughts.
    • Do things that bring you joy. Identify interests you can pursue that help you feel like you have accomplished something positive.
    • Plan for action. Regardless of the election’s outcome, you can get involved in organizations or events that align with your value system and make you feel empowered. 

    Self care adds up. You may not feel better immediately, but it’s an investment over time. Choose one of these self-care practices to try this week:

    • Move your body. Intense feelings, especially anxiety, are like built up energy. When we exercise, chemicals are released that help reduce the intensity of our feelings.
    • Engage in mindfulness activities. Take a walk, read, listen to music, cook, or journal.
    • Commit to taking time each day to unplug. Limit your exposure to social media and news, or consider staying off both until after the election. Also, setting a dedicated time every day to relax can help you recharge and protect your mental health. 
    • Engage with family and friends in fun activities. Plan events and explore something new, watch a new movie, and work on building relationships with healthy boundaries.

    Setting boundaries in your personal life can protect your mental health and your energy, as well as your relationships. Here are five ways to do this:

    • Take a break from social media. Let your close friends and family members know that you’re taking a break from social media until after the election, and they can reach you by your preferred method.
    • Communicate your boundaries. If you see signs of a conversation becoming heated, be prepared to convey that you’re taking a break from talking about the election in real life as well.
    • Find common ground. Plan for lighter conversation around topics of shared common interests.
    • Remove yourself, if needed. Have a plan for excusing yourself if the conversation goes in a direction you’re uncomfortable with. You can use phrases like, “It seems like we’re going to disagree about this right now. Can we talk about something else?” or “I know we both feel really strongly about this. Let’s discuss something more neutral.”

    As you begin applying these practices to your own life, consider sharing them with your teams and coworkers. Different things will work for different people, and they may find something new to implement that helps them feel better and take better care of themselves as well. 

    Protecting the psychological safety of your employees

    It’s not easy to support employee mental health leading up to an election. Every organization has employees with conservative and liberal views, and even within those two groups, views can be vastly different. 

    And of course, every HR and People leader has their own personal views as well. 

    Here are five things leaders can do to protect the mental health and psychological safety of their employees, during the high stress and potential interpersonal differences an election can trigger.  

    Keep the focus on work

    If you start to notice conversations turning political and heated, on Slack or in person, address it immediately. Let the involved employees know that an aggressive nature will not be tolerated at work, and ensure that someone from HR follows up with these individuals if needed.  

    If you’re having trouble navigating challenging conversations, take the time to stop and get support. 

    If your company offers Spring Health, take advantage of the one-on-one manager training and real-time coaching we provide. Our Care Navigators are also always available to provide support before, during, and after a hard conversation.

    Check in with your team

    Check ins have become increasingly important as many teams are fully virtual or hybrid, and the mental health of employees continues to decline. 

    During an election cycle, everyone’s individual values and stress levels will vary. Take extra time to check in to see how they’re doing, and if they need extra support. 

    If they do, remind them of the mental health benefits included in your EAP—which include therapy and on-demand digital CBT exercises, if you offer Spring Health.

    Model self care and respectful communication

    When your employees and colleagues see you modeling good self care, taking mental health days and time off when you need it, it gives them permission to do the same. 

    During this election cycle, be honest about how it’s impacting your own mental health, as well as how you’re taking better care of yourself. Also model respect during every kind of communication, and articulate that it’s everyone’s responsibility to be respectful and to ensure their team feels psychologically safe.  

    Provide resources and reminders 

    ERGs can become a refuge during elections, as a space where employees can find shared community and support. 

    Remind employees about the ERGs your company has in place, and also point them to internal mental health resources and the wellness benefits included in your EAP. 

    If your EAP doesn’t offer mental health support, this is a great time to start considering an innovative EAP that does. 

    Discover the mental health solution that gives your employees expanded access to mental healthcare that’s precise, personal and proven.

    About the Author
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    Heather Romano
    Licensed Clinical Social Worker

    Heather is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with over 20 years of experience in direct care, as well as in organizational development and telemental health. She has provided mental health services across a variety of settings—including her own private practice, larger group practices, and community organizations and hospitals. Heather is an expert in treating anxiety and depression, and passionate about helping others cope with stress and challenging experiences.

    About the clinical reviewer
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