How HR can navigate political polarisation in the workplace

As the election debates heat up, so can the in-office debates, creating challenging and polarising conversations

Navigating politics in the workplace is both a delicate and complex task for employers, people leaders and employees.

Generally speaking, politics is more likely to be kept private at work, with employees rarely openly discussing their political views or their party of choice. The general election and the swarm of contentious headlines it brings, however, is unavoidable; and the stakes feel particularly high for the British public this year. 

Read more: UK professionals divided on political conversations at work

Political stress can bring a nerve-racking, gut-wrenching kind of anxiety. The countdown to the election can intensify all of the issues that affect our lives and the lives of others and it can bring pertinent issues into day-to-day news and conversation. Our political views capture how we view ourselves, our roles, our responsibilities, and what we want for our futures; amplifying the stakes of the general election can create additional stress. And as the election debates heat up, so can the in-office debates, in some cases causing challenging and polarising conversations. 

As people and HR leaders, we play a critical role in offering employees the right support and resources, and there are several strategies that should be implemented to navigate political polarisation and stress effectively.

Psychological safety is of utmost importance
Politics is personal and can be incredibly divisive, particularly in our current polarised environments. Polarisation can lead to heightened tensions, misunderstandings, and conflicts among colleagues. New research from Headspace revealed that one in five employees have argued with a work colleague about politics.

Read more: How to manage political debate at work

Leaders must take proactive steps to create and maintain a psychologically safe workplace for every employee. The way we can do this is to embody a workplace culture that is underpinned by trustworthiness, so that courageous conversations and disagreements (political or otherwise) can take place in a respectful manner. Ultimately, a psychologically safe environment is important for employees and organisations at all times, but it’s particularly crucial during such periods. 

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) must remain a priority
Sadly, today DEI is sometimes being leveraged to further divide communities, creating an 'us versus them' mentality. This pitting different groups against each other based on their identities or beliefs can hinder efforts to build understanding and unity in organisations, which is what we need desperately. What’s more, marginalised groups are particularly likely to feel disproportionate heaviness throughout the election period, so now is the time to double down on – as opposed to disinvesting in – DEI support. Employees need to trust that they can voice their opinions and be heard, which can be achieved through facilitating conversations about race/caste/othering/belonging, allyship initiatives, employee resource groups, DEI discussions and training. 

Behaviours are modelled from the top down
While political uncertainty can create tension in the workplace, focusing on the purposeful work the organisation is doing and coming together to celebrate milestones can create a sense of unity. Employees will look to their leaders for this. Company leaders must ensure they are modelling the behaviour and actions being promoted in the organisation, including demonstrating empathy and respect, and managing their own stress levels.

Access to comprehensive mental health and well-being resources is essential
We know that election season increases stress levels. In fact, Headspace research also revealed that over half of the British public (56%) feel stressed if they think about politics too much, and 44% find it hard to switch off from the political noise. In times of stress we need to encourage employees to take advantage of mental health support options at work. It can be a good time to review what tools are in place and to look at how access to these resources can be scaled up if needed, check whether they are meeting the needs of every employee, and make sure employees know they exist and are encouraged to use them. 

Workplaces must facilitate employees voting
The simple act of voting can be good for our mental health as exercising our right to vote can foster a sense of control, agency, and self-determination. Yet in some cases people may not be able to get to the polling stations due to the demands of their work and personal lives. Employers can support their employees by offering time off or flexible hours on election day to ensure that everyone gets the opportunity to engage and have their say. 

Read more: Workplaces becoming increasingly politicised

Navigating political stress and polarisation in the workplace requires a proactive and compassionate approach. By promoting respect and inclusion, facilitating open dialogue, supporting mental health, and leading by example, HR professionals can help create a workplace that respects political diversity while maintaining harmony and productivity.

By Wizdom Powell, chief purpose officer at Headspace