For many people, the upcoming US presidential election is a source of great anxiety. According to a recent study conducted by The American Psychological Association, 68% of Americans feel stressed about the election. And this stress probably won’t subside after November 3rd, especially if election results are delayed or contested.

 

Considering all the challenges that employees have faced this year, the election may not be high on your list of concerns. But it’s important to realize that election stress is real, and political disagreements at work can undermine performance, strain relationships, and divide organizations. If you are a leader or manager, here are four ways to ensure your employees’ political perspectives don’t tear your team apart. 

  • Watch for warning signs. The concept of election stress disorder was first articulated by Steven Stosny, a couples’ therapist, during the 2016 election. Based on his work with clients, he has noticed that some people experience a heightened degree of anxiety, fear, and anger during election season. For those suffering from election stress disorder, this anxiety can cause them to have strong feelings of resentment and hostility toward their political opponents. In an organizational context, this type of resentment can be toxic—leading to dysfunctional in-group/outgroup dynamics and scapegoating. If you notice your employees are making politically charged comments or jokes, or they are engaging in acrimonious debates about political candidate, positions, or events, it’s critical to intervene. Otherwise, you run the risk of allowing personal and private disagreements to build into interpersonal workplace conflicts.
  • Seek support if you think there’s a problem. If you suspect that political tensions are affecting your employees, it’s important to get help. Reaching out to HR is a good place to start. Before addressing any issues with your employees, you’ll want to make sure you understand your organization’s policies and guidelines, as well as any laws (they vary by state) that may protect political expression where you work. Then, make a plan based on the size and scope of the problem. Isolated incidents may only require monitoring. Ambiguous situations may require more data gathering and fact-finding. Persistent or heated disruptions will need to be addressed directly. Together with your HR business partner, you can identify the best strategy and determine if any additional resources are needed to support your team.
  • Keep employees focus on shared values and goals. In troubled times, it is important to focus your team on things that bring people together. Based on our employee engagement research, we have found that most people want boundaries at work, particularly when it comes to topics like potentially divisive topics like politics. By focusing your team on your core values and organizational objectives, you can prevent your team from getting caught up in partisan politics and culture wars—at least while they are at work. Remind your team about the importance of mutual respect. Encourage them to find ways to support and help each other, particularly during this stressful year. And center your people on meaningful shared goals that will benefit your team and your organization.
  • Model the right behavior. Based on our employee engagement research, we know that teams either pull together or pull apart during times of stress. We also know that the way leaders behave influences their employees’ attitudes and behavior. If you are voicing your own private political opinions at work—complaining about one party and praising the other--you may be emboldening some employees, alienating others, and ultimately adding fuel to the fire. On the other hand, if you lead with empathy, curiosity, and vulnerability, you can create a psychologically safe work environment where all employees know they are valued and respected.

Many experts predict that the polarization we are now witnessing—both in the US and around the globe—will continue well beyond the current election. In such a divided world, you may not be able to keep your workplace completely free of politics. But by listening to your employees, watching for signs of election stress and political tension, and leading in a way that brings people together to achieve common goals, you can prevent political infighting from derailing your team. 

Adam Pressman
Adam Pressman

Business Leader US and Canada, Mercer Employee Research

Patrick Hyland, PhD
Patrick Hyland, PhD

Director of Research and Development, Mercer Employee Research

Speak with a consultant today to discuss how we may be able to help you manage through today’s challenges.