Who you’re voting for is partisan, but mental health challenges are not. Aside from debates about the healthcare system and how to pay for services, mental health is decidedly a bipartisan issue. For better or for worse, it doesn’t discriminate based on your political beliefs.
In fact, the term “Election Stress Disorder” came out of the 2016 U.S. election. While not a medical diagnosis, it characterizes the high levels of stress resulting from an intense election cycle. This year’s election is no different. More than two-thirds of U.S. adults say that the 2020 presidential election is “a significant source of stress in their life,” up from just over half in the 2016 election. This election season is compounded by increased political polarization and the added stressors of 2020, including the ongoing pandemic, racial injustice, wildfires and hurricanes. All of these factors have led to more uncertainty, which inherently increases anxiety.
Giving employees a paid day off to vote is an important starting point. However, consistent behaviors by managers and leaders are key to shaping company culture and enabling everyone to feel supported as the election plays out. Here are five ways to get started.
Name What’s Happening
Many of us were taught not to discuss politics at work. While avoiding full-on debates with colleagues may still be a good rule of thumb, it’s unrealistic and unproductive to ban political conversations and ignore the elephant in the room. It’s also worth remembering that issues of social justice and equality are bigger than politics. As many companies did after the killing of George Floyd, it’s critical to name stressful and traumatic current events and to give employees permission to share their feelings.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the majority of people across political affiliations say that the 2020 presidential election is a major source of stress. Leaders must normalize this felt experience and the effect that it’s having on our mental health, especially as the lines between the personal and professional blur with remote work.
Acknowledge Diversity And That There’s No One-Size-Fits-All Reaction
Political beliefs are both another layer of diversity and also formed in part by one’s intersectional identities. It’s important for leaders to call out both of these dimensions. First, just as we expect employees to respect each other’s differences across many identities, including gender, race and sexual orientation, we must also expect that they respect their political differences. We must ensure that our workplaces are inclusive and foster a sense of belonging regardless of what the difference is.
That said, it’s important to remember that marginalized populations are often disproportionately affected by politics in extremely personal ways—from citizenship status via DACA and immigration policy to the ability to marry who they love to systemic racism. Unsurprisingly, these stressors can cause and exacerbate mental health challenges. For example, 46% of Black American respondents in the APA study said that the 2016 election was a source of stress. That figure jumped to 71% this year. Remembering that the election results affect communities and identities differently is crucial to responding to the varying stressors that will weigh on your employees. Ensure that your company has culturally competent resources available, such as therapists of color on insurance plans to employee resource groups.
Lead With Empathy
Given that your employees will have different reactions to the election, leading with compassion and empathy is a must. Acknowledge to yourself and to your team that this can be challenging if you viscerally disagree with someone’s beliefs. Regardless, everyone deserves respect and support. It may be helpful to take a step back from politics per se and focus on the deeper values that most of us share to find common ground.
As a leader, it’s especially important to be vulnerable and authentic. Communicate that this time is challenging for you, too. This cultivates trust and improves performance and employee engagement. When leaders share their own mental health challenges, it makes it that much easier for others to open up in the workplace if and when they choose.
Model Healthy Behaviors
It’s not enough to tell your employees to take care of themselves and engage in civil discussions—you must also do this yourself. Once empathy and authenticity have been established, model how to have civil conversations about the election and its related stressors. Lead with respect and curiosity. Genuinely listen. Create a safe space for all viewpoints and try not to get defensive. While this is easier said than done during these contentious times, it’s imperative to model this civil discourse for everyone’s mental health.
Leaders must also show how they are managing their own stress through this election cycle. The same principles of navigating other types of anxiety and stress apply. Examples of self-care include therapy, exercise, meditation and connection with friends and family. Particularly important for election stress is to be rigorous about your news and social media intake. Take time off work as needed and encourage your teams to do the same. Consider not only giving people the day off to vote, but also the next few days off to process and recover (or at least a meeting-free day on November 4th). Make sure that your team knows what you’re doing by mentioning your morning run or meditation or putting your therapy appointment on your calendar.
Invest In And Overcommunicate Mental Health Supports
Mentally healthy workplaces pay dividends for both employees and organizations far beyond the stress of the election cycle. In addition to mental health benefits, workplace culture is critical. Mental health and other types of employee resource groups are invaluable (and inexpensive) forums for peer support among colleagues with similar challenges or shared identities. Providing mental health training for executive teams, managers, and colleagues gives a shared understanding, debunks common myths, and equips participants with tools to have difficult conversations and navigate mental health at work.
Particularly in the lead up to the election and its aftermath, err on the side of oversharing your company’s mental health resources and how to access them—both benefits and internal supports. This year, they are needed more than ever.
As Bob Feldman recently wrote, the workplace is “one of the few remaining spaces where citizens routinely engage with others who come from diverse backgrounds and hold different viewpoints.” Let’s make the most of this environment to break down our echo chambers, seek to listen and learn and reduce our collective election-related stress.
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