* Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include recent developments in the 2020 U.S. elections.
With Senate and House Republicans expected to object to the certification of President-elect Joe Biden and results from Georgia’s special election showing two wins for Democrats this week, political tensions may very well still be running high and spilling into the workplace.
According to the American Psychological Association, the majority of people across political affiliations say that the 2020 presidential election is a major source of stress, and employers have an opportunity to address rising stress and help keep workers’ mental health in check.
Tech firm PagerDuty began preparing for the presidential election months ago. Like a large number of employers this year, it aimed to get employees more involved: Leaders made sure workers had time to vote, they allowed them to volunteer at the polls, and they canceled meetings on Election Day. But unlike many employers, it also made sure to have a post-election plan.
“We began talking about election months ago–not election night. We wanted to prepare employees that [they] shouldn’t expect clarity and conclusion,” says Olivia Khalili, PagerDuty’s executive director of social impact and corporate responsibility. “The approach we took was to get ahead of it.”
The company reminded employees of mental health benefits and resources available to them; they hosted workshops and talks with the company CEO. They even had employee resource groups flood Slack channels with fun and funny content, like memes, during the week in an effort to ease employees’ minds a bit. And they gave all 700 employees a paid day off the Friday of election week, Nov. 6, rather than making Election Day a holiday, a la companies like Coca-Cola, Cisco and others.
“We knew the mental tax would increase throughout the week, and we wanted to take a collective pause for some mental care,” Khalili says.
PagerDuty is in the same spot as many employers: navigating how to best help stressed-out employees cope with post-election results. The lead-up to the election brought on stress for many employees, and it’s not abating. Half of Americans saw their candidate lose, and now with President Trump not conceding to President-elect Joe Biden and bringing legal battles to question the validity of the election, uncertainty and anxiety over results only continue.
“No one is sure how the next two months will play out. And the stakes are high for people right now,” says Jaime Klein, founder and CEO of consulting firm Inspire Human Resources. “They are worried about job security, health, their kids’ education, caring for aging parents and so much more. Now, they are also worried about how their fellow employees may react to their feelings or if their company lacks a truly inclusive culture where they feel they can be themselves.”
Scores of employers got more involved in the election this year by offering benefits, paid time off and more to get workers involved. Despite that increased involvement, the majority of employers made one big mistake: thinking their role could end after employees voted.
About six in 10 employers didn’t have a specific plan to talk with their workforce about election results, according to research from the Institute for Corporate Productivity. Specifically, 32% had no communication plan or preparations to handle potential post-election culture disruptions, while 26% didn’t know of any such actions. Others didn’t have clear policies about acceptable political behavior or expression in the workplace: whether T-shirts supporting a specific candidate would be allowed, for instance.
That inaction is a mistake, experts say.
“The election proved just how polarized our society is, and that’s scary for people,” Klein says. “ The issues here, no matter which side of the aisle someone finds themselves on, are about fundamental human rights, safety, health and the future of the country. Those concerns cannot be set aside or flicked off like a switch when someone starts the workday.”
“We knew the mental tax would increase throughout the week, and we wanted to take a collective pause for some mental care.” Olivia Khalili
For smart employers, not staying involved post-election is not an option. When stress and anxiety are high, employees expect leaders to set the tone. That’s a different story than in years past, and some employers are just realizing they need to catch up.
“Ten years ago, you never discussed the things in the workplace we’re discussing openly now,” says Lorrie Lykins, vice president of research at i4cp. “It’s incumbent upon organizations and their leaders to really continue to position themselves to be prepared to have these tough conversations and continue to have a dialogue. This is going to be another couple of challenging weeks where we’ll have a presumptive president-elect, but we have an administration that’s not acknowledging that yet. We know from our research that, in times of turmoil and uncertainty, anxiety and stress go through the roof and organizations that don’t at the very least acknowledge it are the ones that struggle.”
Andrew Shatte, chief knowledge officer and co-founder of meQuilibrium, a digital coaching program that aims to build employees’ resilience, says employers getting involved to help with post-election stress is part of the larger move to consider employees’ entire wellbeing. “Now, there’s a tendency to look at the holistic person more and more,” Shatte says.
‘A perform storm of mental health concerns’
Industry experts have been vocal about the fragility of employees’ mental health in a year defined by a pandemic, economic turmoil, and racial and social unrest. There have been soaring rates of depression, anxiety and burnout. The election, and its aftermath, only add to that stress.
“We’re in a perfect storm of mental health concerns in the workplace, and the election was just the most recent event,” Klein says, adding that that presents a serious issue for retention and productivity.
The key post-election, Klein says, is to support employees and validate their feelings without engaging in a political debate. “A leader’s role is not to talk about politics and what a win or loss means, but rather [to address] an employee’s very real sense of fear, anger or other stress from the outcome.”
Simple messaging acknowledging employee stress and angst post-election–from the company CEO, managers or team leaders–is both easy and effective, experts say. “Even for a leader to come out and say, ‘Things are really uncertain right now, and unsettling, and we understand and we get it. We’re here to support you in any way we can’–it’s really important,” says Lykins, adding that employees are looking to hear from direct managers and team leaders.
Klein says her company, Inspire, is introducing listening circles around mental health and post-election concerns. “These are safe spaces where leaders can hear honestly from their teams, and everyone has the ability to feel heard.” She also says now is a good time to revisit policies on harassment or bullying and offer a refresher training to employees.
Shatte says more companies are realizing that “it’s OK to reach out to people as a whole person.”
“That doesn’t mean you get political–not, ‘Sorry your guy didn’t win or glad your guy did’–but say things like, ‘This couldn’t be tougher, and it doesn’t matter what side of the political fence you’re on. This is a tough time for us to go through.’ ”
Other companies are touting mental health programs and encouraging employees to rely on resources they already have access to, like employee assistance programs and apps that help manage stress and promote positive mental health. “Reminding everybody what’s available, especially with an EAP, is something many high-performing organizations are focusing on. Another thing is encouraging people to take time away and modeling it yourself,” Lykins says.
It’s all about acknowledging how employees are feeling in a year of turmoil, says PagerDuty’s Khalili.
“It’s time for us to do important, critical work to combat current crises but also to really exercise deep listening and empathy.”