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Why your mental health is at risk during the election and 5 tips for staying healthy

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Is this election season threatening our mental health? Plus 5 tips from BetterUp Coaches to protect your mental and emotional wellbeing

Today, we’re launching a new series featuring topics “ripped from the headlines” and insights and wisdom direct from our amazing, generous coaches.

Rhetoric, and emotion, always run high during elections. Every word is designed to raise the stakes. And if the topic is ambiguous, entwined with our values and identity, and of high emotional value, it’s guaranteed to get extra play.

Why does this election season seem harder? Our mental and emotional state coming into the fall doesn’t help. We’re not in good shape. Even before COVID-19, more than half of American workers were lonely. By April, research showed American workers were exhausted, feeling more sadness, irritability, and confusion...not well-primed to hear or make space for other viewpoints, to extend the benefit of doubt or an olive branch. Six months on, many of us find ourselves feeling frayed and maybe something more serious. We asked a panel of coaches what they’re seeing: how is this election affecting our mental health, and what can we do about it as individuals and leaders?

Rick Reddington, Yvonne Chang, Laurenne Di Salvo, Yashi Srivastava joined us for this discussion.

What types of challenges are people facing? 

BetterUp Coaches create a space for employees to show vulnerability, a state of being that enables deep personal growth. In their work with employees and leaders across organizations, they are seeing how politics–once an off-limits work topic–is being dragged into the workplace.

Rick: Psychological safety is low. People are challenged to navigate even discussions that don’t relate to the upcoming election but inevitably expose their political alignment. Despair, overwhelm, insecurity, uncertainty, lack of focus, even depression, are becoming commonplace feelings and experiences. More so than in recent memory, this election season is dividing families, friends, coworkers, and organizations alike; the stakes are high and too many variables are unknown.

Yvonne:  Some employees who sense that their company has an implicit “Red” or “Blue” culture may feel there is a dominant political mindset in their team or affinity group that they are uncomfortable pushing against. Members have anxious doubts about whether the election will resolve the larger problems ... will things get better or will we continue to struggle so intensely? Their concerns are causing deep stress inside. When the world seems out of control, it’s hard to feel in control of your own life.

Yashi: The US election feels overwhelming and largely out of one’s control. A sense of lacking control over our lives adversely impacts our wellbeing. In addition, the media’s constant broadcast of polarizing negative news plays into our inherent negativity bias - making the situation seem bleak and overwhelming.

For leaders and managers, these personal concerns and anxieties are confounded by the immediate: how to maintain performance and keep people on task; how to maintain a healthy, positive, and inclusive environment for their teams at work.

Five coach-approved actions to protect mental health

Our panel of BetterUp Coaches share the top coaching strategies they have been using to help their Members cope during this election season.

  1. Acknowledge what you’re feeling. Mindfulness activities, reflection and journaling can build greater self-awareness and self-compassion. Start by owning your feelings, beliefs and emotions without judgement.

    Tip from Coach Laurenne: Just acknowledging and naming how you’re feeling at the moment can create some space and allow you to focus on work and family commitments. When we give a name to our emotions, it helps shift our brain functions from the emotional centre of our brains and into the prefrontal cortex, allowing us to move into rational thought and often de-intensifying the emotion. 

  2. Accept what is within your control and what isn’t. Most situations, however challenging, involve actions that you can actually take.

    Tip from Coach Yashi: Start by noticing what, in particular, is adversely impacting your mental health: is it the news, social media, interactions with certain people, or something else? Then, ask yourself what you can change: Can you reduce the time spent in watching news? Can you spend more time doing what brings you joy and enhances mental health? Can you set expectations with your team around what is acceptable and what isn’t?

  3. Take action aligned with values. Any action that preserves our integrity can bolster a sense of agency and counter the cynicism and hopelessness that comes from polarization and isolation.

    Tip from Coach Yvonne: Reconnect with your values—values like making a contribution, however small, to a better world, and finding the common good that they can join with others to bring about. Clarity and wisdom can come from letting deep-seated values move from the background to the foreground of one’s inner landscape—and then acting consistently on those values.

  4. Take a screen break and get active: Physical exercise can help manage our attention and energy. So, too, can smaller acts that affirm our wellbeing, like deliberately ignoring our news feeds, leaving your phone in another room, blocking sites on your computer, and snoozing channels on social media that we find too compelling.

    Tip from Coach Laurenne: At an individual level, we can make time for a walk or another form of exercise, knowing we will be more energised and productive afterwards. As individuals and also as leaders, we can also encourage 'walking meetings', be that in person for those who are able to do this, or via phone while walking.

  5. Allow for other perspectives. Bringing curiosity and empathy to try to recognize alternative perspectives can be beneficial to our own wellbeing. 

    Tip from Coach Yashi: For people struggling to understand an opposing point of view, I find it helpful to share this resource (Empathy is not endorsement) about how keeping an open mind when speaking with someone you disagree with can offer important perspectives. We all look at the world from a unique lens and that there is no single “truth” when it comes to relationships. 

How are you leading through the pand-election?

In this challenging time, leaders have the opportunity and responsibility to demonstrate their caring and commitment to the workforce. Finding moments to recognize individual efforts, celebrate group accomplishments, and tap into our shared humanity can provide respite for our teams.

Rick: Leaders carry the vision and model the culture of their organization; you are essentially the stewards of psychological safety. Your words and actions demonstrate whether diversity, equity, inclusion, or even different political perspectives, are truly welcome. As a leader or colleague, how are you promoting environments where differences are respected. How do you recognize efforts and make everyone feel like a valued contributor? How can you show respect for every point of view, and inspire others to be their best with no correlation to political preferences or beliefs?

As we wind toward November, don’t forget to breathe, take time to stay healthy, and remember to vote. Positive action is a powerful source of wellbeing