Political Tensions Continue to Affect the US Workforce

Political Tensions Continue to Affect the US Workforce

Wayne Hochwarter, a professor at Florida State University’s College of Business who specializes in organization behavior, conducted a field study this summer as part of an ongoing project on the anxiety-inducing effects of political conflict, in which he surveyed 550 full-time workers across the US about a variety of work-related issues, how politics are affecting their day-to-day interactions in the workplace. Discussing his findings at the Conversation, Hochwarter reports that he found evidence of heightened political stress, which correlated with negative workplace outcomes:

Twenty-seven percent of the participants agreed or strongly agreed that work had become more tense as a result of political discussions, while about a third said such talk about the “ups and downs” of politicians is a “common distraction.” One in 4 indicated they actively avoid certain people at work who try to convince them that their views are right, while 1 in 5 said they had actually lost friendships as a result. And all this has serious consequences for worker health and productivity.

Over a quarter said political divisions have increased their stress levels, making it harder to get things done. Almost a third of this group said they called in sick on days when they didn’t feel like working, compared with 17 percent among those who didn’t report feeling stressed about politics. A quarter also reported putting in less effort than expected, versus 12 percent. And those who reported being more stressed were 50 percent more likely to distrust colleagues.

Hochwarter’s field study relied on student-recruited sampling, so he acknowledges that his respondents may not be representative of the entire country; his findings are consistent with what other surveys have found over the past two years, as well as with the widely-recognized atmosphere of heightened division and polarization in American politics today, and particularly since the 2016 presidential election.

A survey from the early days of the Trump administration showed that US employees were unusually distracted by political news and debates at work, with workers reporting spending two hours a day reading social media posts about politics and half saying they had witnessed a political conversation turn into an argument at work. Employees acknowledged that their preoccupation with politics was distracting them at work and that they were being less productive as a result. These effects were already being seen before Trump’s election, during the height of the 2016 campaign season. If Hochwarter’s conclusions are representative, the distractions created by today’s political environment are not going away.

The Trump era has also seen US corporations become more politically active, bringing national politics into the workplace in new ways. Leaders of Silicon Valley tech companies and other major employers have spoken out in open letters to the government or amicus briefs in the courts regarding politically sensitive topics of importance to them or their employees. These include immigration issues like Trump’s moves to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and his administration’s policy of sharply reducing the issuance of H-1B visas, as well as matters of diversity and inclusion, such as discrimination protections for LGBT employees and the rights of transgender individuals in particular.

On one hand, younger Americans increasingly expect CEOs to play the role of activists, speaking publicly about social, political, and global affairs and backing up their words with the way they run their businesses. On the other, the growing trend of liberal-leaning activism by corporate leaders has has also led to backlash among some employees who hold conservative political views and believe their opinions are suppressed at work. This issue of “ideological diversity” came up in last year’s controversy over a Google engineer’s memo asserting that that men predominate in software engineering because of biological differences between men and women; that Google’s diversity and inclusion efforts reflect an “extreme,” “authoritarian,” and “leftist” ideology; and that employees who express conservative political beliefs or different viewpoints on the merits of diversity are shamed into silence.