What Businesses Should Do About The Mental Burden of Political Events on Employees

As individuals, there seems to be no escape from war, injustice and inequality because we live in a world that is constantly switched on, plugged into an endless stream of information and opinions.

The technology that used to be the stuff of science-fiction means that it is now very difficult to miss news of major world events. This overload of information and topical conversation can have a highly detrimental effect on the human mind. Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin found the link between information overload and multi-tasking, which is exactly what the brain is doing as it consumes content while trying to focus on work. Multi-tasking increases the level of the stress hormone cortisol and therefore, this can have a serious effect on the brain’s physiological health.

How heavy is this mental burden of political events on employees in the workplace? How does it manifest itself? And what should businesses do about it?

How do political events create a mental burden?

The US Supreme Court recently overturned Roe V Wade, giving US states the right to ban safe, legal abortions. Much like Brexit in the UK, the country was divided as those on both sides of the debate clashed. Naturally, a case as widely reported with effects as far-reaching as this will filter into everyday conversation and into workplaces.

Women who have had abortions, are considering an abortion and/or those who believe they should have a say may hear the opinions of those who have the opposite view at work, which could create a mental burden and conflict.

As war continues to ravage Ukraine, the threat of nuclear war looms while food and fuel shortages have caused the cost of living to skyrocket. While these effects ripple across the continent, amping up the pressure for many Europeans.

The mental burden on both Ukrainian and Russian workers is strongest. Just as not all Jews are supporters of Israel in the Palestinian conflict, not all Russians back Putin’s stance. It is vital to consider how employees from these nationalities are treated in the workplace.

How does this mental burden manifest in the workplace and what are the issues for business?

Discussion of topical events in the workplace is virtually unavoidable. So is the presence of conflicting views between employees. When workers voice support for an issue such as abortion or war or police brutality, it may touch on another worker’s trauma. As the mental burden increases, the friction between differing opinions is likely to grow. This could lead to severe problems in the workplace which may not be openly expressed.

The extreme impact is being ‘cancelled’.

Someone is cancelled after expressing an opinion on a topic relating to diversity.

Cancel culture can lead workers to avoid sharing their opinions for fear of being cancelled and possibly fired. This can seriously damage the permission to bring one’s authentic identity to work, and thus a sense of inclusion and belonging.

Awareness of cancel culture varies among age groups. A recent survey of 10,000 Americans found that while 64% of respondents under 30 had heard a great deal about cancel culture, only 46% of those aged 30-49 were aware and just 34% among the over 50s. This means that certain age groups within the workplace may be more or less at risk of being on the wrong side of this growing trend.

As Gen Z will soon make up around 27% of the workforce, a study conducted by Psychology Today found that 14% of Gen Z respondents said that someone had tried to or successfully cancelled them, and 19% said that they themselves had cancelled or tried to cancel someone. That’s around one in five, which is an important metric to track over time.

With Gen Z being perceived as being more ready to vocalise opinions there is potential for generation divides in interactions with older co-workers.

Taking a stance on world issues

Organisations are also under increasing employee and customer pressure to publicise their views on current affairs and social issues. The Global Trends 2021 report includes insight from 25 countries across six continents. Across all countries surveyed, 70% of respondents said that they buy from businesses who reflect their own personal values. In both the UK and France, the percentage of respondents who buy from brands who they feel a personal alignment with has grown from 17% to around 60% since 2013.

A worldwide study of 30,000 people by Gartner showed 87% of workers thought brands should make their views on social issues clear and 74% thought that this should extend to issues that aren’t directly related to the business. The clear inference is that employee engagement increases when companies make their views on an issue clear.

To what extent should brands communicate their stance on world issues?

Focus on the internal first. In all communications, honesty is key. Employees will pick up on disingenuous messaging, generic statements or pandering. Listen to workers and take note of the issues that they see as directly affecting them. Address the mental burdens that employees may be feeling to provide reassurance and support.

Ensure external statements are aligned with internal messaging and that the intention of your communication is clear. Is the business communicating to offer support to employees and customers who may need assistance, or is it stating a point of view, for example? If the latter, have you considered all perspectives holistically and is the communication aligned with company values and behaviours? How far would you go if pushed? Would you change supply chains, for example?

What can businesses do?

Ensure policies on workplace respect and inclusion are clear to every employee, as well as the policies for dealing with employees who do not follow these guidelines.

There should be information to help workers understand how the organisation views cases where there may be a strong difference in personal and political opinion, what is permissible and what will not be tolerated.

Explore how employee representative groups can support better communication between employees and managers to catch cancel culture in its early stages. A collaborative approach to combatting toxic work cultures will help employees feel included and their opinions valued.

Regular check-ins with their employees to stay in tune with their wellbeing is important. Research shows that employees with empathetic managers are more productive and are generally happier at work than those with managers who don’t lead with empathy. Put systems in place to check that employees feel listened to and understood and introduce leadership training to help managers lead with empathy.

There are many strategies that help businesses monitor the mental burden of political events on employees and how to create a supportive workplace.

GDP can help you devise effective strategies for tackling cancel culture and ensuring that every employee feels included and accepted at work.

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