Americans are especially stressed right now. Coronavirus infections are spiking. More than 22 million people claimed unemployment benefits in the U.S. in October. As winter encroaches, days grow shorter, and the grief and stress of social isolation is causing a public mental health crisis. And now, people are voting in an extremely polarized election that will decide the direction of the country.
The stakes are high and the same stresses, fears and frustrations that people feel outside of work don’t disappear when they clock in. Your co-workers may be operating under the weight of all this psychological distress this week in particular. But whether your colleagues are throwing themselves into work or seem to be withdrawing completely, it’s time to cut each other some slack.
Respect the many different ways work fits into people’s coping strategies
“For some people, [work] is a release, and for others it’s a distraction from the stress, and for some people, it adds additional stress so they try to remove themselves from it,” said Lisa Orbé-Austin, a licensed psychologist who focuses on helping professionals through career transitions. “It’s really OK to acknowledge the place that work plays when you’re extraordinarily stressed.”
How people felt the morning after the 2016 presidential election may impact how they are trying to care for themselves this week. Orbé-Austin noted that some of her clients are guarding against experiencing the same election trauma they felt in 2016.
“I think in some way people are preparing their week in accordance to taking care of themselves, so they don’t find themselves in a similar situation where they were just devastated,” she said.
In other words, if someone found it helpful to be around others and have conversations at work after the last election, they may be seeking it out again. If going to work after the 2016 election felt existentially meaningless, they may be withdrawing.
Being a good colleague means giving everyone considerable slack for how they’re dealing with the stress of living through a pandemic and a tense election week. Withhold judgment if the way your co-workers are coping with work right now is not the same method you choose for yourself.
“‘Oh, my way is better, their way is worse’ ― those are unhelpful dichotomies to get into. Everyone has a different way of processing,” said Orbé-Austin.
“If this is a pattern, it’s definitely not the week to confront the pattern. If this is an anomaly, you have to recognize it as such” and be more tolerant because this is a difficult week for a lot of people, she said.
Managers should lead by example and give everyone more flexibility this week and beyond
Being compassionate means giving as much flexibility to colleagues as you can right now, and managers need to lead by example.
People operations consultant Keni Dominguez said flexibility on Election Day and beyond means managers should be adjusting expectations related to output and taking all nonessential items off the calendar this week ― and potentially through the month of November and the remainder of the year. Managers can ask themselves, “What is absolutely necessary to operate within these organizations? Do we need to have all of these meetings?” Dominguez said.
Managing the ebb and flow of a team’s varying energy levels could also mean offering options like job or shift sharing for hourly employees, flexible core work hours, paid time off, reminders about employee assistance programs or the option to telecommute if that’s not already available, Dominguez added.
“It’s so important for managers to clearly communicate what’s expected of everyone on their team in normal times and in extra-stressful times like this week,” said Lara Hogan, author of “Resilient Management.” Repeating these expectations via email is good because it gives employees “something reassuring to re-read if they’re concerned,” she added.
But before you offer these options, Dominguez said, it’s important for managers to first not assume what their team members need but to have one-on-one meetings in which they can directly ask. Then offers of flexibility can be made to the team in a public statement that acknowledges everyone processes election stress differently, such as, “Some of us will need to take time off. Others may want to work the entire day or all week. And some of us may want or need an accommodation of both,” Dominguez said.
Managers should also acknowledge that none of the options are wrong.
Because some people work in politically polarized organizations, Dominguez said, it’s a good time for bosses to make anti-harassment and code of conduct policies highly visible and accessible, too.
What you can do on an individual level, whether you are a manager or not, is to be communicative about what you need to do your job and be well.
“Most people are generally much more understanding when they have a sense of what’s going on with their team members, like what are the issues,” Dominguez said. “I think the first step there is just being open-minded and also just having clear communication with your peers and with your manager.”