MAYBE YOU’VE FELT THE AIR around your workspace’s proverbial (or literal) watercooler thickening lately. If that’s the case, it’s not hard to imagine an obvious culprit: the midterm elections.

It should go without saying, but this tension comes to shore off of one of the most politically divisive years in recent American history. Now, it’s spilling over, into cubicles, break rooms, and workplaces. We’re growing edgy. So many of our conversations seem subtly imbued with anxiety about the future of America. An Associated Press-NORC/MTV poll in late September found that half of all Americans aged 15 to 34 feel anxious about the elections, up from 36 percent in July.

Like so many Americans, Ximena Hartsock, the president and co-founder of Phone2Action, a digital advocacy company, watched the pivotal confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh on a Thursday morning with her team at work, with people who didn’t unilaterally agree on what it meant for America. It represented a sea change in an already turbulent time. More than 20 million watched live on TV as Stanford University professor Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her 36 years ago, and Kavanaugh fiercely deny it.

We saw employees who were agitated, with tears in their eyes,” she recalls. Her experience wasn’t a unique one. All over the country, people of all political stripes had their moral orientation, their experiences, their biases, and their psychology stress-tested that day. And not knowing how to address that, regardless of your views on the matter, could only make everyone’s lives worse.

As Hartsock witnessed firsthand, “anxiety happens most when we don’t have compassion for other people’s views or views are held in secret.” The Kavanaugh episode brought into sharp relief for her—and so many Americans—the reality that people with different identities and different lived experiences process news quite differently. And the intensity is only ratcheting up.

“We live in very different times today than even 10 years ago,” says Hartstock, whose company has space at WeWork Metropolitan Square in Washington, D.C. “And ‘looking the other way’ may not be advisable.”

THE NICETIES OF NOT TALKING POLITICS AT WORK, and co-workers skirting the topic, could contribute to the pressure-cooker incubation of these tensions. On the one hand, not knowing someone’s political views could be a sweet, ignorance-is-bliss relief.

Except—get this—it could genuinely make things worse.

“It appears that people may both be more fiercely fired up, politically, and simultaneously more afraid of sharing their perspectives, especially when they are unsure of the views of their peers,” says Danica Harris, a psychology professor at Texas Women’s University. “This is surely leading to greater anxiety and distress at work, which can impact one’s ability to focus.”

“Some of what people are hearing on the news is triggering,” explains Harris, “and for those with a history of trauma, this information may legitimately impact their functioning.”

Anxiety, stress, and isolation lodge themselves in our bodies. They’re part of the fight-or-flight response, which draws blood, glucose, and oxygen from our immune system and other critical body functions. And for all the money we spend on yoga, or eye creams, or meditation apps, simply walking into work—the place you go to earn the money to spend on the stress salves of our lives—and not saying anything at all?

That could double the damage.

“If you’re stuck in a chronic state of stress response, it’s going to shave years off your life,” says Michael Lee Stallard, a Greenwich, Ct.-based consultant and leadership trainer, and author of Connection Culture. “A lot of people are in pain now.”

As such, gone are the days when HR reps advised managers to discourage political discussions at work. It just isn’t a viable option anymore. But if that’s truly the case: What actually is?

Your oxygen mask goes on first

The person easiest to control, naturally, is yourself. Step one is the most obvious and, also, the one that bears repeating the most: self-care.

Start with sleep —  the foundation of (or culprit affecting) mental health. All the tips you already know will help: electronic devices off well before bedtime, charged outside the bedroom, and so on. Nourish yourself with enough water and healthy food, which often become neglected in times of stress. “When we are depleted, lacking sleep, or highly distressed, our ability to process triggering or emotionally intense content is impaired,” Harris says.

On that note, time to go full-Marie Kondo on your media diet. “Tune out the loudmouths,” Stallard says. “Don’t watch television or listen to radio where the people are shrill and everything is a crisis and the other side is out to get you. It’s better to read.” For example: Make a list of people on social media who consistently trigger your stress, whether you disagree or agree with them. Be it sadness, rage, or panic, if they have an easy way into your mind—and even if this goes against your principles—consider blocking them. The logic’s pretty clear cut here: You can’t have principles without being of sound mind. No point in engaging these people anyway, if your reaction to them is so pavlovian.

Step away from a tense situation, if needed. Then, Harris advises, use all five senses to ground yourself in the moment. For example, using the “full body scan” method many mindfulness meditation courses employ—during which you take a moment to breathe deeply, and simply take an inventory of all the sights, smells, sounds, and kinetic feelings you’re experiencing — could be a good exercise to get practiced in.

There are so many important topics being discussed right now, and it is hard to turn away,” she acknowledges. “Ultimately, though, you need you most. When you’re watching or reading more, especially when you are already flooded, this will not serve you, or anyone else. Give yourself permission to breathe and take a break.”

Checking on, and checking in

Next, reach out to your coworkers. Empathy is contagious. Exposing your own anxieties, even absent any specific political outcome, could prove therapeutic. If a colleague seems withdrawn or you realize you haven’t talked in a while, invite them for a walk, a coffee, or lunch. “If people seem to be isolating themselves in the workplace, that’s a bad sign,” Stallard says. “Reach out to them because they’re in pain. If somebody cares, it gives them a life raft of hope.”

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but in-person conversation—off Slack, off text, right in front of you—is a genuinely healthy use of your mind. Literally.

“It engages the frontal lobes of the brain and it quiets the amygdala and limbic system. It engages the part of their brain where they’re more likely to make good decisions,” he says.

As Hartsock recalls of the Kavanaugh confirmation battle, “we managed to create a safe environment where employees felt camaraderie and comfort by sticking to our core value [of] ‘take care of each other.’” For touchy subjects, make the extra effort to speak in real life, rather than using Slack or Facebook. “People are more tolerant and composed when speaking to a colleague or coworker face to face,” Hartsock says. “In general, employers don’t give employees enough credit. Most people are mature in the workplace and handle these conversations with respect and tolerance.”

Also helpful? Having a confidante. Make speaking with them a regular practice. “A daily debrief is healthy for our mental and emotional health,” Stallard says, citing research on the power of empathy. “When you empathetically listen to the other person and hear what they’re grateful for and can attune to their positive emotion, it enhances their positive emotion. When you attune to their negative emotion, it diminishes their pain.”

Even if you don’t share someone’s political views, look for a point of commonality where you can hear their perspective. “Just seeing people’s emotion is validating, even if the only words that are exchanged are, ‘I see you,’ ” Harris says. “Once people feel validated, the tension is likely to subside, and you will have created an office culture of safety, where people feel encouraged to share and connect.”

Sense and sensitivity  

During the Kavanaugh hearings, women’s #MeToo stories poured in via all forms of media—Facebook, newspapers, TV, even elevator screens. People were, en masse, sharing decades-old traumatic experiences with colleagues, friends, and close family members, often for the first time.

It’s a powerful reminder that the current political climate takes a larger toll on marginalized groups, whether women, assault survivors, people of color, or members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“Marginalized groups are experiencing greater amounts of fear,” Harris says. “The safety of the workplace will be greatly impacted by how political conversations are conducted. Are people allowed to share their own stories? Do people have the space to be heard? Are people’s experiences believed?”

Reaching out to colleagues who may be in one of these groups can create an opening for connection, empathy, and a deeper relationship. It can be as simple as asking how they’re finding room for self-care or saying you’d like to support one another.

“Focus on the individuals in the room rather than the politicians in these conversations. It’s easier to have empathy when faced with someone’s lived experience, rather than their disdain for a politician,” Harris says.

In that sense, as fraught as this time may be, it also represents an opportunity to build stronger working teams and better mental health for everyone. It’s key to remember that you can do this even if you disagree with people’s ideas, and you can do so without addressing those ideas, too. That’s not some centrist caterwauling so much as the simple fact that expressing compassion isn’t at all a political act.

It’s nothing more (and nothing less) than the kind we all benefit from: a personal one.

After completing his last treatment for stage-four throat cancer in 2009, Michael Hayes, a serial entrepreneur with a software-engineering background, spent years thinking, How can I use software to solve problems in the real world?

The problems he was most interested in solving were the big ones—cancer prevention, detection, and cure. But it wasn’t until around 2012, when breakthroughs in machine-learning made it possible for computers to read massive amounts of medical-records data, that Hayes began to see the role software could play in cancer care. In 2018, Hayes founded the nonprofit research organization CancerAI, a member at WeWork 625 Massachusetts Ave in Boston that aims to break down the walls between organizations and across sectors to bring the results seen in experimental research to the real world.

Removing the barriers in communication, says Hayes, is key to developing the artificial intelligence needed to improve cancer prevention, detection, and treatment. “In some ways, everyone who develops cancer has a unique case,” he says. “That makes fighting cancer extremely daunting, which is why collaboration amongst different cancer-fighting groups is so important.”

Hayes and CancerAI had a seat at the table this past fall, when WeWork and the Biden Cancer Initiative (BCI), a nonprofit founded by former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, launched their “collaboration hubs” in cities across the country. The aim: to make sure that every person, no matter where they are in their cancer journey, has a voice in the fight against the disease.

CancerAI is a founding member of the collaboration hub in Boston, and in the organization’s first session, members of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and the Broad Institute were present.

“It was small, it was the first step, but there was a lot of interest in the collaboration in the Boston area,” says Hayes.

These hubs—which have expanded to New York City and San Francisco—broaden what is normally a one-sided conversation to include stakeholders or members of the community who would not normally be involved in decision-making.

“It’s incredibly important to get perspectives beyond CEOs of top pharmaceutical companies,” says Catharine Young, BCI senior director of science policy. “Whether it’s a nurse or a caretaker, they all bring with them a wealth of knowledge.”

Earlier this year, Dr. Rahul Remanan, who has hosted sessions associated with BCI for years, led a collaboration hub at WeWork 750 Lexington Ave on New York’s Upper East Side. At the gathering of about 70 professionalsmostly technologists and health-care practitioners—Remanan, who is trained as a doctor and founder of the full-stack AI firm Moad Computer, focused on the idea of open data systems used in early cancer detection.

“I want to reach out to as many people as possible around [the technology] because I know I can’t do it on my own,” says Remanan, who shared his collected data before discussing the lessons and range of challenges of using artificial intelligence in cancer detection.

The push for shared data in medical research is a departure from tradition with a huge potential payoff: The hope is that if these technologies become successful on a wide scale, the highest-quality cancer care can become available to everyone. The software systems Remanan and Hayes hope to build can help doctors by flagging high- and low-priority images, greatly increasing the likelihood of getting a diagnosis for the people who need it most, no matter where they live or their socioeconomic levels.

“[We would] have an efficiency that’s accessible to anyone from across the world,” he explained. “You don’t have to pay more and more money to get quality care.”

“The future is here—it’s just unevenly distributed,” says Koios Medical CEO Chad McClennan, an AI medical-image-analysis platform approved by the FDA that analyzes the data in images and notifies physicians when something in an image, often naked to the human eye, looks suspicious.

This virtual second opinion can level the playing field for patients everywhere. Accuracy goes up, fewer people are sent home mistakenly, and fewer people are subject to treatment that turns out to be unnecessary. Koios, a member at New York’s WeWork 500 7th Ave, has half a million images linked to pathology results and is currently deployed with about 50 physicians in the New York area. “You have an expert’s second opinion at your disposal instantly and ubiquitously,” says McClennan, who is currently planning a hackathon at a collaboration hub.  

The future that McClennan speaks of can be available to everyone—regardless of geographic location or income—only if the fight against cancer extends across silos and disciplines.

“It’s hard and it takes time, but I’m optimistic that it will happen,” Hayes says. “Within a couple of years, some of these [software] tools will be quite prevalent in making a big difference in the fight against cancer.”

Photo courtesy of iStock

I’ve always had this theory that money can “feel” different, depending on where it comes from. That the money you get for grinding out paid work for a company has a different energy than the money you get for your true-blue creative-soul work (if you’re able to get paid for that work at all).

But there are many artists and creatives who make a strong case to the contrary. A group of them came together recently to discuss the intersection between art and commerce at a panel co-hosted by WeWork x BRIC at WeWork 81 Prospect St in Brooklyn, New York. They shared what it means to be a working artist in today’s world, how corporate work can inspire a richer artistic practice, and the trick to maintaining your ethical center when a company is footing the bill.

Every bit of making feeds the beast.

“I’m lucky I get to make art every day,” says Mike Perry, a multidisciplinary artist and illustrator. To Perry, there is no line between “art for them” and “art for me”—rather, all the work he does feeds his daily practice. “I love an assignment because I’m free to explore, learn something, experiment with new materials and ideas,” he says. “I can be influenced by something I’m paid for.” Perry says he can sit down at 7 a.m. and work on a project for T-Mobile for five hours, then turn to his tackle box of oil paints in the afternoon to create something entirely for himself.

This conversation goes way back.

The Baltimore-based street artist-cum-muralist Gaia is quick to point out that art has been dependent on commerce for centuries. Drawing a strict boundary between what is “real” art and what is paid for by someone else doesn’t add much to the conversation, he says—and if taking commissions allows the artist to focus on their work and put food on the table while remaining in touch with the real world and engaging with audiences, why shouldn’t they?

Panelists (from left) Mike Perry, Devin Vermeulen, Gaia, and Chelsea Campbell with moderator and WeWork’s vice president of content and campaigns Laura Brounstein (center).

Boundaries spark creativity.

As a creative director at Pandora, Chelsea Campbell works within some of the strictest borders of all: 30-second audio ads. “Constraints make for better creation and better creativity,” she says, noting that the ad can play to the listener’s “theater of the mind”.

Money affords bigger, better projects.

If someone will pay you to go bigger—and let you learn how to do it in the process—could you turn it down? “Scale is hard, and money makes scale happen,” says Perry. Money also allows projects to expand and grow. At Pandora, the algorithm is so good at predicting what music listeners will enjoy because musicologists work behind the scenes categorizing each song by up to 400 traits. This form of creativity is born from technology funded by a corporation … but it trickles down to a pleasurable user experience. When Pandora uncovers your new favorite song, you’re not thinking “What a smart technology company,” but instead, “Wow, they know me so well.”

Ethics drive compatibility.

Finding a brand or company whose mission aligns with yours as an artist is critical to a successful collaboration. When Devin Vermeulen, a senior creative director at WeWork, asks an artist to create a mural for a WeWork location, the project isn’t just in service of the brand. He’s going to them “because we like what they do and want the project to align with their mission,” he says. “We want to see success as a byproduct of having an impact on the world.”

Every project needs to please stakeholders.

Any creative project comes with different voices telling the artist what to do—and that doesn’t change whether it’s a corporate gig or a mural on a street corner. Gaia says it’s important to build consensus among competing agendas and what each person expects to see. “My job is to synthesize and find a balance” between everyone, he says, whether that’s a hotel manager with specific needs for an installation, or a grandmother living on the corner in Baltimore who has expectations for the art that should be on her street.

“Selling out” is different for everyone.

Perry noted a recent uptick in the use of the phrase “selling out,” which he says peaked in the early 2000s and now seems to be coming back around. Perhaps that’s a function of a robust economy—more companies have the ability to commission artistsas more people are ditching the 9-to-5 and identifying as artists and creatives.

But when a brand and an artist want to work together and their missions align, there’s no harm done, says Vermeulen. Campbell put a fine point on it: “Sellout has turned into collaboration.” It’s the artist’s prerogative to decide what “selling out” means for them—if it means anything at all. Getting paid by a corporation may allow them to live their dream in another capacity.

The blur can be good.

Perry recounted creating a giant 80-by-30-foot mural for Jameson whiskey. People on Instagram loved it, and he was confused—It’s an ad, he thought, They all love an ad?! Finally, someone told him, “Mike, we’re just really happy you got a job!”

The public is often less concerned with the distinction between art and commerce than one would think, especially if the merger gives rise to something better. As Vermeulen said: “If I’m going to be bombarded by an ad, I’m glad it’s done by an artist.”

For all the blurring of art and commerce, Perry said something that rang in my ears after the night was over. “Maybe,” he says, “we should think about ourselves as humans and people and not brands at all.”

Photos by Lori Gutman

As the space between work and not-work becomes ever more blurred, questions about how to do this thing we plug away at for 30 or 40 or 70 hours a week become all the more expansive. In this column, Work Flow, we’ll delve into the novel dilemmas created by the new ways we work, as well as timeless questions about ethics, gender assumptions, and toxic work situations (and how to escape them). How we work is an important component of how we live—and we’re here to help you do better at both.

Something messing with your flow? Unload your work problems here, and you’ll not only feel heard, but you’ll also get unbiased, real-world advice. (That’s something your work sibling/spouse just can’t offer.) Tell us everything:

Our office has recently moved into a new building with an open-office format, and while I love the collaborative vibe, I’m having trouble with the fact that people assume I’m always available. I’ve tried using headphones, but this does not deter folks from interrupting me—even when I am clearly busy. Any suggestions on how I can better manage this transition?

Headphones are a start. (Are yours noise-canceling? Here are a few options for you, if not.) The trick is, you must sometimes remove your headphones completely—when you’re not in “uninterruptible” time—otherwise they become just another part of the scenery and something people will ignore. Set the expectation that when they are on, you’re working on something urgent and should not be bothered. If someone comes up to ask you a question during that time, tell them politely, “I’m so sorry, I’m on an immediate deadline. Come back at X time and we can talk?” Then get back to work. People should begin to get the point.

You could also ask your boss to send a reminder that headphone-wearing folks should not be interrupted unless the matter is truly urgent, like the copier is on fire. Alternatively, is there a conference room or empty office where people needing extra quiet might work on occasion? Some of the frustration may be from feeling helpless in this situation, and acting in a forward-thinking way can combat that.  

How can I exit a job gracefully? People become close (professionally) with their bosses, now more than ever. You follow each other on social media; maybe you even hang out casually outside the office. Can I tell my boss—whom I trust—that I’m looking? Are there new rules?

Every so often, the old rules are the best rules. The long-held standard of two weeks’ notice is there to help you out, as are the general best practices for resigning: Tell your boss in person if possible, write a nice resignation note (even an informal email thanking them for the opportunity and what you learned), don’t steal a bunch of staplers when you leave.

I would not tell even a boss you’re close with that you’re looking for another job before you actually have another job and are officially ready to give notice. When we’re very close with the people we work with, there may be an urge to say, Oh, I’ll stay longer, I’ll help find my replacement, I’ll do whatever it takes to make this transition easier for you, my friend—but don’t do that, either. Quitting a job is like a breakup; setting boundaries, and adhering to them, is important.

And here’s the thing: Your boss is not your friend, really and truly, even if before they were your boss they were your friend and after they are your boss they can again be your friend. Your boss is your boss, just like your company is not just some lovely spot with good coffee where you happen to sit and do work on your laptop now and again. The boss and the company should be treated with respect during your relationship and also as you’re ending it. Think about what you would prefer if you were in their shoes—but don’t undermine your own interests and well-being to achieve that.

Treat the severing knowing that you might want a recommendation from this person down the road. (You don’t have to keep following each other on social media. Kondo that stuff if it doesn’t bring you joy!) The important thing to remember is that this person might be your boss again at some point, but even if they’re not, they can help you figure out other opportunities, connect you to new professional acquaintances or gigs, and even be mentors. Or even better, good friends.

How can you tell someone you love that having their email signature in Comic Sans looks really bad?

Be brave enough to send them this link. In the case that the Comic Sans user is someone you don’t love, let them dig their own grave.

Illustration by Jiaqi Wang

Your local coffee shop may have recently banned the straw, but takeout practices will need to evolve way more radically if humanity intends to keep roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic pollution from entering the environment each year. According to anti-plastic advocacy group 5 Gyres, millions of tons of that junk are byproducts of quick meals we eat on the go: candy wrappers, bottle caps, soda bottles, and clear plastic bags.

The We Company is one of a growing number of companies around the world that are doing their part by eliminating single-use plastics from their daily operations. But making this transition takes time, planning, and a culture shift away from our ingrained, single-use ways.

To outline some best practices, we talked to Lindsay Baker, The We Company’s head of sustainability and wellbeing, who oversaw the company’s six-month transition to single-use-plastic-free workspaces, and Rachel Labbé-Bellas, science programs manager for 5 Gyres, a member at WeWork 5792 W Jefferson Blvd in Los Angeles.

Tackle low-hanging fruit first. Consider your workspace kitchen—and your colleagues’ and your own habits. Is coffee made with single-use plastic pods or in a communal pot? Is water served in a glass or a plastic bottle? Is there a compost receptacle? A recycling container? Do people use them?If your answers err on the plasticky side, start by tackling those problems first by eliminating coffee pod systems or improving recycling options (and coworker compliance). “If you’re in an office where you do nothing else to be thoughtful about waste and your impact on the world, [eliminating single-use plastic] probably would be tough [to start with],” advises Baker.

Demonstrating to co-workers how much waste is saved by replacing plastic water bottles with a water cooler and reusable glasses could help plant the seeds for a bigger commitment to office sustainability.

Don’t swap one problem for another one. When The We Company tackled the plastics in its kitchens, “we really tried to prioritize not replacing single-use plastics with single-use other crap,” says Baker. Ceramic mugs and metal cups replaced disposable cups in the company kitchen, metal cutlery took the place of plastic silverware, and glass jars of honey landed on pantry shelves. “We’ve always had the choice of paper cups for water and beer, but ultimately, reusability was the bigger message here,” says Baker.

That’s because “recyclable” plastic alternatives might not necessarily make it to the proper processing facility once they’re discarded. “Many cities around the world don’t process compostable waste outside the landfill,” says Baker. Your “eco-friendly” paper cup might end up at the garbage dump, and trash in landfills does not break down—it just sits there forever.

Products made of biodegradable plastics won’t break down in the landfill or ocean, either. “They biodegrade in industrial facilities at 4,000 degrees,” says 5 Gyres’ Labbé-Bellas. “It takes that much heat to actually break down that item.”

Finally, 25 percent of properly recycled goods in the U.S. will be exported to another country, increasingly in Southeast Asia, where there’s a lucrative market for waste plastic. Once abroad, it could be reused—or it might be incinerated or end up in a landfill.

Baker recommends using alternative disposable materials only if there’s no reuseable option. The We Company is transitioning away from the use of wood stirrers, for example, with messaging that encourages coffee stirring with metal spoons.

Break it down to dollars and cents. Financial incentives can encourage buy-in from employers. “For us at The We Company, a reusable cup typically pays for itself after about 30 uses,” estimates Baker, which is why it could be in your company’s best interest to buy reusable cups for everybody in the office. And if your office pays for its waste disposal by volume, there could be an additional savings when all those single-use plastics are no longer filling up the trash cans.

Struggling to get the whole staff on board? Labbé-Bellas says that turning green initiatives into a competition—like who can waste the least or recycle the most—with prizes like gift cards or cash bonuses for the winner, can go a long way in changing people’s habits.

Get the messaging right. This involves more than just putting signs up around the trash area. 5 Gyres recommends officewide screenings (or just share the link) of The Story of Stuff’s 5-to-10 minute animated videos that show what happens to everyday items like disposable water bottles once you get rid of them. They may convince even the office skeptic.

When you do start making those signs, suggests Baker, “picking accurate terms like ‘zero single-use plastic’ as opposed to ‘zero-plastic’ will make sure people aren’t confused when they still see plastic around the office.” And one more tip: Labbé-Bellas says that newly-reformed coworkers may end up with stacks of plates and cups in their offices at first, and might need a reminder to return them to the kitchen.  

Work with green-friendly vendors. Your office may have rid itself of single-use plastics, but what about your caterers and food-delivery services? For most restaurants, it’s the default move to load up a bag of to-go food with single-use plastic forks and paper napkins. Offices that depend on catered meals should figure out which restaurants are most amenable to reducing waste in their packaging and encourage employees to order their food from those places. Restaurants might cut back on plastic wrap, use bigger trays to decrease the number of cartons, and eliminate plastic to-go boxes. “There are lots of things caterers can do just to reduce [plastic waste] if you ask them to,” says Baker.

Eager to reduce single-use plastic ASAP? Make sure your next coffee or lunch break is free of plastic straws, utensils, containers, and bags. It’s one small way to do your part—and it will only grow from there.

Photo by Katelyn Perry