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Disruption, Distraction, and Lost Productivity: the Post-Election Workplace

Loss of workplace productivity is a perennial topic at i4cp, guaranteed to come up each spring in the form of a conversation about basketball instigated by our CEO, Kevin Oakes, who can’t resist a good March Madness pool (or March Madness analogies).

We can count on Kevin to prod those of us who choose to partake each year to hurry up and pick our brackets already. We can also count on the inevitable good-natured snark to start flying around too. Who can resist pointing out the irony of the CEO of a company with the word “productivity” in its name actively encouraging his employees to use work time to choose winners and losers, knowing full well this is followed by bracket-checking for a solid two weeks?

I’m not a college basketball fan by any stretch; I choose my brackets based on the most banal of details I won’t bore you with here. My point is that the benefit of this annual team-building exercise doesn’t escape me. Sometimes simple, light-hearted distraction is as important to supporting morale and productivity as any other more formal approach at team-building, and probably even more effective in some cases. This year, it may be a balm to the soul for many of us.  

That's because we’ve all been confronted with another sort of distraction lately, one that hits each of us in different ways and to varying degrees. It would be disingenuous to say the political climate we have been living in the past several months doesn’t impact every workplace in one way or another. It does, and we all know it. From the rhetorical bombardment of the 2016 election cycle, to post-inaugural developments, we are clearly distracted. Some of us may be anxious and worried, some of us may be annoyed by those who feel anxious, and just wish everyone would take it easy and give things a chance to settle down.

A survey conducted this past August (a full three months before the election) by the American Psychological Association found that one in four U.S. employees reported being negatively affected by political discussion at work, with younger workers especially reporting diminished productivity and increased stress. And many reported feeling distanced from their colleagues and having more negative feelings towards them, as well as an uptick in workplace hostility, all due to political conversations.

An i4cp pulse survey conducted this month on the impact of the travel ban found that in the wake of the January 27th executive order restricting entry into the U.S. by nationals of seven countries, nearly one-quarter of respondents said that they anticipate negative impact on productivity in their workplaces. Another 43% said they are undecided or just don’t know what the overall impact might be; this uncertainty surely contributes to a degree of distraction as well. The personal stories and observations shared by those who participated in the survey reflected these themes:

Travel bans impact on workforce productivity “Suddenly with no guidance or clarity on the practical applications, [the travel ban] created a tremendous amount of work. It has heightened anxiety across a huge population of employees so far not impacted. It has created distraction,” noted a respondent. 

“This has created uncertainty for our employees and candidates with non-immigrant work visa status, which serves as a distraction,” said another.

And: “Those who are not directly impacted [by the travel ban] have expressed that they have family members who are impacted, close and distant. This causes added stress to their lives affecting health and wellbeing. Others who are reminded of their immigrant experience fear that their country could be added or have empathy for the plight of current immigrants and refugees. The sense of helplessness and frustration in our Silicon Valley headquarters is palpable.”

The travel ban aside, in the weeks since the inauguration, we have collectively experienced subtle and not-so subtle social changes that unavoidably carry over into the workplace.

We are witnessing the emergence of a growing community of dissenters; protests, rallies, and other public demonstrations are regular occurences. There is currently a call for a nationwide strike to take place this week (dates of February 17 or May 1 have been publicized by organizers). Organizers of the January Women’s March on Washington have announced plans for another day of protest, A Day Without a Woman (March 8). Other national days of demonstration include a protest against the repeal of ObamaCare set for February 25 and a Tax Day march on April 15. 

In general, we seem to be more tuned-in to what is happening and clearly consuming more news. The New York Times has reported record growth in readership, adding 276,000 digital-only subscribers in the last quarter of 2016 alone. Cable and network news viewership is up as well. And if it's possible, we're checking our phones even more frequently than usual. But all this close attention to the latest news updates, tweets, or alerts feels like a Groundhog Day-like loop of waiting for the other shoe to drop (and there are an immeasurable number of shoes). It isn’t helping most of feel more positive or productive. More likely, we are exhausted and a little depressed by it all. One respondent to the i4cp survey recounted: “This morning, one person at the coffee machine asked colleagues how they were feeling about ‘the fall of western civilization’—that certainly started everyone's day off on a high note. The concept of common decency that we expect from our co-workers is not being demonstrated by our civic leaders and it's concerning to see how far that will go in the workplace.”

So, what can we realistically do about it? How can we reduce stress in the workplace, and mitigate what one executive described as “emotional exhaustion”?

We spoke with a mental health professional who specializes in workplace dynamics and managing through trying times, who made the following suggestions:

Leaders and managers need to model positive behavior to help people work through their anxiety. This starts with acknowledging the unsettled feelings some people may be experiencing. Well over half (60%) of respondents to the i4cp travel ban survey said their companies hadn’t communicated to their employees about it. But staying silent or hoping that everyone works through it on their own is not an effective strategy.

Travel bans communication at work It is possible to talk about politics without inciting conflict by focusing on the feelings related to it, such as anxiety and uncertainty. This begins by gathering leaders together to identify exactly what it is your employees need to hear from you. Focus on the things you can control, such as workloads, the tone and tenor of team discussions, and how you react to the unexpected. Create a strategy and communication plan that acknowledges what people may be feeling and include consistent messaging across the entire organization.

Simple steps can make a big difference: Some employers are starting the workday with brief meditation exercises to help employees focus on the work at hand. Some are insisting that employees step away from the desks intermittently for quick deep-breathing breaks or to take a walk or refuel in the breakroom. The CHRO at one i4cp member company leads daily 5 to 10-minute dance breaks, inviting employees to take turns deejaying.  

If your company offers EAP benefits, be sure that employees are aware of this and know how to access the confidential services. 

When necessary, call for a time-out on political discussion in the office. Such boundary-setting by managers can be a relief to team members who are still recovering from pre-November 8 election fatigue.

Dial back the pressure on projects that don’t demand it. Not everything is urgent. Revisit and reset, where appropriate, your team’s priorities and communicate them clearly.

If your workplace deals directly with customers, consider tuning TVs and radio stations in common areas to neutral stations such as cooking or home and garden programming. The same goes for TV monitors that may be in common areas shared by employees. Some survey respondents reported conflict over channel settings specific to news stations. If you need to take a time-out and turn TV monitors off altogether, do it.

Infuse humor and lightness in the workplace when and where it’s appropriate and makes sense. Make it okay to take part in positive distractions (like checking your March Madness brackets). And if you’ve never organized a pool in your workplace, I know a guy who can help you with that. 

Lorrie Lykins is i4cp's managing editor and director of research services. 

Lorrie Lykins
Lorrie is i4cp's Vice President of Research. A thought leader, speaker, and researcher on the topic of gender equity, Lorrie has decades of experience in human capital research. Lorrie’s work has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other renowned publications.