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.