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Do politics and work mix? It depends

Should people discuss politics in the workplace or keep their opinions to themselves? The answer depends on who you are talking to, according to a survey released Wednesday by the American Psychological Association.

More than a quarter of American workers said they are negatively affected by political talk in the workplace. Many said it makes them feel stressed and less productive. And yet the same survey also found about a quarter of workers forged stronger relationships with their colleagues through political discussions.

“We were curious if political talk was spilling over into people’s work, and if was causing any problems – more conflicts with coworkers, more hostility, more stress,” said David Ballard, a psychology doctor and assistant executive director for organizational excellence at the APA. “We know that work is already one of the leading causes of stress. Could the talk of the election be adding an extra layer?”

The survey was conducted by Harris Poll, a membership-based polling and market research agency, for the APA.

The online survey of 927 adults employed full- or part-time in the United States found that younger workers, between 18 and 34, were most likely to feel stressed due to political talk. 

Men were were twice as likely as women to discuss politics with their coworkers. They were also twice as likely to say that the political talk made them less productive.

Nearly half of the workers surveyed said people are more likely to discuss politics in the workplace this election compared to past seasons. 

But Pam Erskine, a director of program services for a non-profit in Maine, said she felt people were talking about politics less this election.

Her experience was echoed by Angela Lindauer, who works in community outreach for an arts organization in Virginia. “I only talk about it to one or two individuals,” she said. “It's fairly taboo, especially in that I am fairly conservative and working in the art community means I am surrounded by people who are not, so it is probably a self-imposed taboo.”

Jane Dennery, who worked in customer care for a technology company in Pennsylvania, observed the opposite trend in her workplace. “I definitely noticed the political talk ramping up in my last job, which I believe had a lot to do with the coming election. I wouldn't say more heated political debate, but definitely more frequent political debate and discussions.

“Even when we disagree on major issues, it never gets mean or spiteful. There's always been an unspoken ground rule of respect first.”

Some workers have forged stronger relationships with their colleagues through political discussion. About 24 percent said they feel more connected to coworkers and 23 percent say they view their coworkers more positively.

“It was encouraging to see that a majority of working Americans said people at work are generally respectful toward each other, even if they have different political views,” Ballard said. “It was also somewhat surprising to find no major differences in the way these political discussions are affecting people based on political party or ideology.

“Our survey revealed that regardless of party or views, people are more alike than they are different when it comes to how political talk at work is affecting them this election season.”

Workers who identified as Democrat or Republican fell within a few percentage points of each other across nearly every measure.

Ballard said managers and supervisors should be aware of how political talk in the workplace might affect the team.

“While the number of people affected may seem small, 27 percent is still a significant portion of the workforce. And even just one employee on a team who is more stressed, or getting into arguments, or avoiding coworkers because of political differences can create a ripple effect that hurts the whole team,” he said. “With about two months left until election day, it’s possible that talk could get more heated or intense.”

He recommends having a clear policy that limits political activities in the workplace, and communicating that policy to workers. He acknowledged that enforcement can be challenging and that banning all political talk is unrealistic.

“The best approach is to promote a workplace culture that embraces respect, trust and civility,” Ballard said. “When people can work together toward common goals in a psychologically healthy environment, where they feel supported by the organization and each other, then employees and the organization can thrive, regardless of political differences.”