Tumultuous National Politics Affect Workplace Wellness
The last few weeks in the United States have been unusual and extraordinary. “Politics as usual” seems to be a thing of the past. Multiple protests have been held in most major cities in the United States, and social media ranting and grandstanding has escalated from mere rumblings to full blown cacophonic levels. Regardless of an individual’s political orientation, preferences, or beliefs, all of this activity is probably producing an increased level of stress.
Just this past week President Donald Trump glibly commented on the low ratings former Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenneger was receiving for his new role as host of the television show “Celebrity Apprentice.” Former Governor Schwarzenneger responded by suggesting that President Trump take back his former job and allow Schwarzenneger to take over as president, thereby allowing the American “people to sleep comfortably again.”
Governor Schwarzenneger’s concerns about Americans’ ability to sleep is definitely well founded. Sleeplessness significantly (and recursively) increases stress (Randall, 2012) and unfortunately it appears as if stress has a major impact on workplace performance. Specifically, managers should expect an increase in errors, difficulty with learning, and even an increase in workplace absenteeism.
Increased stress has an effect on multiple biological systems, including: the musculoskeletal system (tense and sore muscles), the respiratory system (difficulty breathing), the cardiovascular system (decreased oxygen supply to the brain and poor blood circulation), the endocrine and limbic systems (difficulty with memory), the gastrointestinal system (upset stomach), the nervous system (jumpiness and restlessness), and the reproductive system (APA, 2017). If an employee is navigating even just one of these physical symptoms it is easy to imagine how workplace productivity might be affected. Specifically, stress affects areas of the brain where we both learn and remember important tasks. If we are significantly stressed, not only the amount of work we are doing but also the quality of the work produced is likely to suffer from significant errors and mistakes. he reality is that our brains are simply not able to function at their optimal levels when we are under significant stress (Randall, 2012).
Potential Workplace Stress Reducers:
Break the routine and acknowledge employee feelings:
While it is unproductive (and inappropriate) to rant about the actions of one particular political party or another in most workplaces, it might be helpful to explicitly acknowledge the increased stress of fears experienced by employees who are trying to mentally navigate significant political shifts and events in recent days. Regardless of whether an individual is happy or dismayed about these changes we know that significant change (or even perceived change) affects our stress levels. Sometimes just acknowledging this fear can produce a greater sense of well-being (North, et al, 2013).
“Beg” employees to get additional exercise:
If employees are listless or unproductive at work consider a group walk or a meeting held while walking. Strongly consider giving employees an extra hour or two to go “hit” the gym. While it might cost an extra hour or two of production up front, research indicates that the potential payoff for this investment is significant considering the possibility for increased gains in performance and productivity as the employee will have an increased ability to focus and is likely to have the effect of simultaneously reducing the number of careless errors made as well as increasing overall levels of productivity (Schwarz & Hasson, 2011).
Encourage mental health days:
If your workplace offers benefits for “mental health days” it might be a great time to encourage a stressed employee to take a day off for self care. While many workplaces wouldn’t think twice about strongly encouraging an employee to take off of work if they had a physical problem such as a severe cold or flu, we often don’t think about the potential of rest on our mental well being. Reducing stress takes time. When we are able to devote that time to ourselves we tend to function more effectively.
While it might seem absurd and petty to practice thankfulness, research shows...celebrating even small successes can help alleviate stress and improve overall well-being. Whether looking for an extra aspect about an employee’s performance to praise or having a full blown employee celebration/thankfulness event, a little display of gratitude can go a long way. Some research even suggests that stress hormones are as much as twenty three percent lower in individuals who actively practice gratitude (Emmons & McCullogh, 2003).
Sometimes the best way to reduce employees’ fears is to simply acknowledge that you have heard the employee express those fears. Subsequent efforts to refocus the employees’ attention on the task at hand can also be helpful. Asking questions that help the employee to focus on the agency that they do have in their own lives and in their own role in the workplace can have a significant impact on how they perceive external threats. Asking questions such as, “what are you thinking of doing next?” or “How will the work that you do improve the lives of others?” can be very helpful in arresting a pattern of perseveration on anxiety producing thoughts about both perceived and real threats as “action” often act to reduce anxiety.
Do you need additional tips on fostering wellness in your work environment? Contact us to find out about our Workplace Wellness assessments.
American Psychological Association (2017). Stress effects on the body. [Whitepaper]. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx
Emmons, R. & McCullough, M. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experiential investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. The Journal of Peraonality and Social Psychology (83)2 pp. 377-389.
North, C., Pfefferbau, B., Hong, B., Gordon, M., Kim, Y., Lind, L., & Pollio, D. (2013). Workplace response of companies exposed to the 9/11 World Trade Center attack: a focus-group study. Disasters (37)1. pp. 101-118.
Randall, M. (February 3, 2011). The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis. Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. [website]. Retrieved from:
Schwarz, U. & Hasson, H. (2011). Employee self-rated productivity and objective organizational production levels. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 53(8).