Three Things to Do at Work Instead of Talking About Politics

If you’ve seen a surge in the presence of politics at your workplace, you’re not alone. And if it's wearing you down, you’re not alone either.  

As the lead facilitator for Kripalu’s RISE program, I regularly bring evidence-based mindfulness and resilience practices to workplaces throughout the country. When I ask people what their biggest source of stress is right now, I routinely hear two answers: “Not enough time in the day” and “politics.” 

You might imagine we’d do anything possible to avoid having those two factors collide, but a recent national survey suggests that the opposite is happening: American workers are currently spending an average of two hours a day reading or discussing politics. That’s a quarter of the workday—500 hours if you keep it up all year.

Having an eye on the political landscape can be an essential part of daily life. It can make us more informed and better connected citizens, help us plan for the future, and even work to change it. Moreover, your coworkers are some of the people with whom you spend most of your waking hours, and it is very likely that the changes in the political landscape mean real changes in your workplace and your life. Trying to turn a blind eye toward current events isn’t just impossible, it’s counterproductive.

But research like this suggests that our gaze is becoming transfixed by politics. And when we can’t look away, a two-hour daily diet of political news can become a source of rumination and anxiety, not engagement. When we bring that news to our coworkers, the result is alienation more often than connection.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics as cause for withdrawing from a friend.” While we may aspire to such heights of tolerance, the view on the ground is less inspiring: America’s political parties are more polarized now than they have been at any point since the end of the Civil War. Chances are, whether you know it or not, someone where you work passionately holds a political position you abhor. Before you decide to set them straight in the break room, consider that even if you’ve got your facts all lined up, research (and a whole lot of everyday experience) suggests that facts rarely change minds. When those facts challenge deeply-held beliefs, the instinctive response is often to retrench the same attitudes and separate from the challenger. But when we rely on those very same challengers to get the job done, that can lead to a downward spiral in both productivity and job satisfaction.

If we could shave off even a sliver of those 120 minutes spent watching Washington, what might we do instead? Here are a few of the practices we research and put to work in Kripalu’s RISE program:

Breathe. When you read an article that makes your blood boil and your focus falter, set aside two minutes for slow and steady breathing. When we’re under stress, blood pressure rises and cognition and mental control plummet. These changes are governed by the autonomic nervous system—named thus because it handles all kinds of automatic processes you normally can’t control. But you have one doorway into that system: your breathing. By breathing slowly and deeply while feeling and focusing on the inhale and exhale, you can voluntarily trigger the relaxation response, which helps restore balance to the nervous system following a stressful encounter.

Get outside. If you’ve been brooding on something, take a walk in the park. A 2015 Stanford study found that after walking through a campus park at their own pace, subjects showed drastically reduced rumination. Walking on a highway didn’t help—so stay away from traffic and go for someplace green. Better yet, grab a friend to go with you: one study of more than 1,500 people found that group nature walks “mitigate the effects of stressful life events on perceived stress and negative affect while synergizing with physical activity to improve positive affect and mental well-being.” If you don't speak nerd, allow me to translate: Walking in nature with other people can make you happy.

Meditate. There are numerous forms of meditation, but one in particular has been shown to help mend the places where our social relationships tend to fray during trying times. Metta meditation, a traditional Buddhist form of practice that involves focusing on thoughts and feelings of compassion for ourselves, loved ones, strangers, and even enemies, has also become one of the most widely researched meditation practices. People who practice metta meditation regularly, for as little as eight to 15 minutes, show increases in positive emotions and a deeper sense of social connection, increased immune function, perhaps even reductions in cellular aging. Which is not only good for you, it also helps the people around you: Metta meditators demonstrate greater altruistic behavior and reduced implicit bias. Try it yourself.

At their core, all these practices ask us to make a break with the habits that dominate our days. They create opportunities to step away from activities that may become obsessive if left unchecked, and encourage us to see our own lives from a slightly different vantage point. We all need to stay informed and engaged in the world but, next time you’re overwhelmed, give one of these practices a try. You’ll still have plenty of time for politics.

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