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September 14, 2016 | Volume 10 | Number 8
September 14, 2016
This year’s extraordinary presidential campaign is taking a toll on American workers, some of whom report feeling stressed, argumentative and less productive because of political discussions on the job, according to a survey released today by the American Psychological Association.
Among all workers surveyed, nearly half (47 percent) said people are more likely to discuss politics in the workplace this election season than in the past. Although a majority of working Americans (60 percent) indicated that people at work are generally respectful toward others with differing political views, more than a quarter (26 percent) have witnessed or overheard their coworkers arguing about politics, and about 1 in 10 (11 percent) have gotten into an argument themselves.
Overall, more than a quarter of working Americans (27 percent) reported at least one negative outcome as a result of political discussions at work during this election season.
“The workplace brings people together from different backgrounds who might not ordinarily interact with each other. When you add politics to the mix – a deeply personal and emotional topic for many – there is potential for tension, conflict and problems for both employees and the organization,” said David W. Ballard, PsyD, MBA, director of APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence, which commissioned the survey.
The survey also found:
Despite the differences in the way political discussions are affecting certain categories of employees, there are some groups that were surprisingly similar. Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, the survey found few differences across political party or philosophy when it comes to how the 2016 election is affecting American workers.
“Regardless of political identification, the heated discussions and divisive rhetoric this election season have the potential to take a toll on people’s well-being and even affect their job performance,” Ballard said. “While employers may not be able to limit political discussions in the workplace, they can take steps to ensure those conversations take place in a civil, respectful environment. A psychologically healthy workplace is particularly critical during challenging and polarizing times, and these survey results highlight the fact that despite conventional wisdom, people are often more alike than they are different.”
The survey results echoed the research of Michael Leiter, PhD, an organizational psychologist and professor at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, who has researched workplace civility. Even while politics has had the potential to dial up workplace tension, most people have remained respectful and civil.
“Most people get along well at work, and it really is more of an unusual circumstance where there is a lot of rude behavior going on,” Leiter said. “When that happens, it is very important [to pay attention]. But most people have it all worked out and can get along.”
One reason that people can continue working together despite differences is that all employees are working for a shared mission – the work of the organization. Rudeness has the potential to develop when employees put their personal agendas – in this case, political views or allegiance – as precedent over the shared mission, Leiter said.
While the people affected by political talk at work may seem a small number, the effect they have on the rest of the organization can be significant. Younger workers (ages 18-34) and men were more likely to have said that because of political discussions at work, they feel more isolated from their colleagues, have a more negative view of them and have experienced an increase in workplace hostility.
Men were more likely than women, and younger workers (ages 18-34) were more likely than older generations, to have experienced negative consequences of political discussions at work this election season, the survey found. This includes having difficulty getting work done, producing lower-quality work and being less productive overall.
More than 1 in 4 younger employees reported feeling stressed out because of political discussions at work, according to the APA survey.
Compared to women, men were more than four times as likely to report having argued about politics with a coworker (18 percent vs. 4 percent).
As Election Day approaches, political talk could intensify especially around milestone events, such as the debates. In an effort to avoid the pitfalls of political talk, an immediate thought may be to tell employees they can’t talk about the election, candidates or the issues. It’s a legal minefield, but more importantly, it’s not easy to enforce.
“They’re going to talk about it,” Leiter said. “The issue is how you talk about it: are you being obnoxious? That’s much more important. Most people do talk about it as adults.”
Depending on your organization, a policy could be helpful. In a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 72 percent of HR professionals indicated their organizations discouraged political activities in the workplace, and 24 percent of organizations had a written, formal policy on political activities.
Leiter recommends distributing reminders and messages about the importance of respect and civility, but omit any mention of politics. The importance of working well together transcends whatever political talk is happening at the moment.
“Share a general theme of a respectful workplace and respectful dialogue,” Leiter said. “However you communicate with employees, have things that are pithy and short for employees to read and reflect upon about respectful interactions at work.”
Keep the message positive, he said. Avoid a list of “the don’ts.” Telling people what they can’t do will likely backfire – it’s too parental, and it’s more important to tell people what you want them to do.
If an employee is becoming disruptive or distracted because of politics, that’s when a supervisor or group leader should “have a heart to heart on the importance of getting the work done, reinforcing the shared mission,” Leiter said.
The survey was conducted online within the United States on APA’s behalf by Harris Poll from Aug. 10-12, 2016, among a nationally representative sample of 927 U.S. adults who are employed full or part time. Results were weighted to align them with their actual proportions in the population. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.
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