Workplace Wellbeing

Polarizing Politics: How Leaders Can Protect and Support Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Here are five strategies HR leaders can use to alleviate election anxiety and ensure the psychological safety of their employees during the stressful election cycle.

Written by
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Heather Romano
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Clinically reviewed by
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A women looking pensively in the office

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    Voting is one of our most fundamental rights. It allows us to make our voices heard and make a difference in our communities by weighing in on local issues and policies.

    However, what should be an empowering experience has become a source of stress and anxiety due to recent divisive election cycles. The increasing radicalization in U.S. politics has made it difficult to trust news sources and heightened fears about extremist behaviors that are more prevalent than ever before.

    Dr. Robert Bright, a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic, has observed this phenomenon. He notes that people on both sides of the political spectrum are affected in various ways.

    “We notice it in our bodies, the tension in our shoulders. We start getting irritable and short, snapping at people, not trusting people, and seeing people as the other or 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 unique 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 contradicting 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 important for leaders to take care of their mental health first. Modeling good self care protects and replenishes 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 ultimately, the result that proves your initial idea 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 you can control now, 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 empower you. 

    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 emotions.
    • Engage in mindfulness activities. Take a walk, read, listen to music, cook, or journal.
    • Commit to taking time each day to unplug. Limit your social media and news exposure, or consider staying off both until after the election. Also, setting a dedicated daily time 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, energy, and 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 also taking a break from talking about the election in real life.
    • 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 strongly about this. Let’s discuss something more neutral.”

    As you begin applying these practices to your 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. 

    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 personal views as well. 

    Here are five things leaders can do to protect their employees’ mental health and psychological safety 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 an aggressive nature will not be tolerated at work, and ensure someone from HR follows up with these individuals if needed.

    Management can also send out disclaimers about work being a safe and collaborative space and reiterate the code of conduct when tensions begin to run high.   

    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 our one-on-one manager training and real-time coaching. Our Care Navigators are always available to provide support before, during, and after difficult conversations.

    Check in with your team

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

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

    If they do, remind them of the mental health benefits of 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, they are inspired to do the same. 

    During this election cycle, be honest about how it’s impacting your mental health and 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. 

    External work stressors can silently impact employee productivity and engagement. Learn how to build trust and provide the support they need. 

    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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