Why talking about politics at work is a bad idea

A new survey suggests it might be a good idea to keep political arguments out of the workplace. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

Remember the old adage about not mixing church and state? You may not want to combine work and state, either. New survey findings suggest this year’s tension-filled presidential campaign is taking a toll on some office workers, especially more junior employees.

The survey, conducted in August by Harris Poll for the American Psychological Association, included 927 full or part-time workers in the U.S. Nearly half said they were more likely to discuss politics in the workplace this campaign season than in the past.

But those conversations appear to take an emotional toll. The results of the online questionnaire show that 1 in 4 employees said they’ve been negatively affected by political talk at work this election season, including more than a quarter of younger employees who said they feel stressed out by such discussions.

Workers ages 18 to 34 were also more likely than older colleagues to experience negative job-related fallout – including trouble getting tasks accomplished, feeling more isolated​ from coworkers, and experiencing an increase in hostility around the office – after having office conversations about politics.

Curtis Reisinger, director of the Northwell Employee Assistance Program in Manhasset, New York, said this is a particularly contentious election season that creates a more amped-up environment when the topic arises in work or any other social groups.

Younger people, he said, don’t have as many election seasons behind them for historical perspective. In past years, he said, candidates – and their supporters – showed a little more restraint.

“We’re not dealing with that now. We’ve got everything in our face. One of the things that is contagious is emotions​,” said Reisinger. “[People] in their 20s – not to disparage – the cognitive part of the brain is not fully developed. So there’s more reactivity, physiological arousal and the inability to deal with conflict.”

 

Survey shows most employees are unhappy at work

Men in particular seem to be affected, the survey showed. They were more than four times as likely as women (18 percent vs. 4 percent) to report having argued about politics with a coworker. They were also more likely than women to have experienced negative consequences of political discussions at the office – twice as many men as women said political talk was making them less productive​.

Reisinger said that doesn’t mean women aren’t feeling the impact; they may just be less likely to engage outwardly.

“Men tend to be more reactive in terms of, physically,” he said, driven by higher levels of testosterone.

Even though the majority of survey takers (60 percent) said people at their workplace are generally respectful toward others who don’t have their same political views, about a quarter (26 percent) said they have witnessed or overheard coworkers arguing about politics.

About 11 percent admitted to engaging in an argument themselves, and 27 percent reported at least one negative outcome stemming from political discussions 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,” David Ballard, director of the APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence, said in a press statement about the survey.

Other key findings:

  •  More than half of American workers (54 percent) said they avoid discussing politics with colleagues.
  •  One in five reported avoiding some coworkers because of their political views.
  •  About a quarter of employees (24 percent) reported that they feel more connected to coworkers, or have a more positive view of them (23 percent) this election season.

Smaller numbers of workers reported a range of negative consequences, including:

  •  Feeling more isolated from coworkers (13 percent).
  •  Feeling tense or stressed out (17 percent).
  •  Being more cynical and negative at work (15 percent).
  •  Having more difficulty getting work done (10 percent).
  •  Being less productive at work (13 percent).
  •  Work quality has suffered (10 percent).

What could be done to improve the situation? “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,” Ballard said.

But Reisinger told CBS News that given the polarized nature of the presidential race, it might be better to save the discussion for non-work environments. Even better, keep a journal and get it all out in private without the risk of alienating others, reducing your job productivity and pumping up your stress level, he recommended.

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