advice

Ask a Boss: The Cable News at My Office Is Giving Me Anxiety!

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Dear Boss,

My office runs cable news on TVs visible from all break and work areas during work hours. There is no business need for this news; we’re a software-development office in an industry not directly related to politics or activism. I’ve previously spoken to my manager and cited them as a distraction. He agrees with me but has stated that my grand-boss (my boss’s boss) wants to keep them.

I have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, and over the last weeks especially I’ve found these headlines, snippets, and inevitable water-cooler talk to be an anxiety trigger, up to and including panic attacks. I’d like to address this with my boss, but I am at a loss for how to get traction. Do I bring up my diagnosis? Do I involve HR? Do I request a blackout on news media in work areas or request some kind of individual work-area accommodation?

I feel compelled to add that I do organizing and activist work outside of my office hours, so I’m not trying to stick my head in the sand about current events, just to mitigate the work impact. I also work very hard at managing multiple chronic illnesses, and my boss has been consistently impressed with my individual work and team involvement since I began a year ago. I am the most junior member of my team, and the only female member.

Oh, letter writer, I feel for you. You aren’t alone in not wanting a constant stream of news coming at you right now — I think a lot of people would find this really, really unpleasant and not at all conducive to holding yourself together, let alone staying focused on work.

In fact, I wonder if any of your co-workers share your sentiments. It’s worth asking a handful of your colleagues how they feel about the incessant cable news wafting through your office. If you can assemble a small group of people to push back against what’s happening in your office, you might be more effective.

The idea behind pushing back with a group is that it makes it harder for your boss to ignore you or to dismiss the complaint as not being a big deal — or to dismiss you as overly sensitive. When a group of employees says “this isn’t working for us,” it often gets taken much more seriously. Sometimes that’s due to lazy management — because you should have been listened to all along, not only when you made yourself harder to ignore. Other times, though, employers truly don’t see the impact that something is having until they hear about it from multiple people.

But even if you can’t get a group of colleagues together to talk about this with someone with the authority to change it, it’s worth revisiting this with your boss. And this time, I’d change the framing you use when you talk with him. It sounds like when you spoke to him the first time, you just cited the TVs as a distraction. Probably that sounded to him like more of a minor nuisance, which likely doesn’t carry as much weight with him as his own boss’s desire to keep the TVs on does. But it’s not just a nuisance to you; it’s causing you real distress. So this time, try framing it as something more serious.

For example, if you have a pretty good rapport with your boss and he’s a generally open and reasonable person, you could say something like this: “I know we’ve spoken about this before, but I need to raise it again. When we spoke before about having the news constantly playing, I framed it as a distraction from my work. That didn’t really get at the extent of the problem it’s causing me. Like a lot of people, I’m finding the current political climate stressful and upsetting. It’s certainly not my intent to make this about any one political viewpoint over another, but not being able to get away from politics itself all day long because we have the news playing everywhere is keeping me in a constant state of anxiety. It’s made work really difficult, when ordinarily I love my job. I know that you’ve said that Jane wants to keep the news on, and I’ve really tried to roll with that. But it’s impacting my state of mind enough that I’d like to formally request that this be revisited. How can I go about formally asking for it to be reconsidered?”

Now, that may be more than you want to say to your boss, especially if he isn’t particularly sensitive to how very difficult the current political climate is for a lot of people. If that’s the case — or if you try this conversation and it doesn’t work — then yes, your next step is HR.

You would be going to HR not to ask them to mediate this for you, but to formally request a medical accommodation for your anxiety. If you’re at a decent-sized company, HR should be used to fielding employee requests for medical accommodations, and they’ll know that they need to take it seriously, just like they would if, say, your asthma were being triggered by cleaning products in the office kitchen.

When you talk to HR, you should explain your anxiety diagnosis and say that you’re officially asking for a medical accommodation — specifically, to work in an area without the news playing all day. They may ask you to provide documentation from a doctor or therapist, and don’t be put off if they do. In many offices, that’s a standard part of the process when someone requests a medical accommodation. But they’re going to be hard-pressed to argue that it’s essential to keep cable news playing in an office that has nothing to do with politics or current events, or that giving you an out (presumably by turning it off, at least in the area you work in) would be an undue hardship to them.

I suppose that if you trust your boss to handle this reasonably well, you could also have this conversation with him instead of the somewhat vaguer one that I suggested for him above. But people are often so weird about mental-health issues — and about medical accommodations in general — that it can be safer to take those to HR, since they’re (at least in theory) trained to handle requests for accommodations. It shouldn’t be that way, but it sometimes is.

Because you mentioned in your letter that you’re the most junior member of your team and the only woman, I imagine that you might be worried about being perceived as being too sensitive and people wondering why this is such a big deal to you. And who knows, they might. But assuming that you are a reasonably level-headed person who does good work, those are the things that are likely to form the bulk of people’s impressions of you. (I don’t mean to imply that otherwise it would be legit for them to think of you as a delicate flower; it still wouldn’t be. But it might help you to remember that they see lots more of you than just your anxiety.)

So talk to someone there — your boss, HR, or both. And here’s hoping that your future holds calm, peaceful days filled with the sounds of copier machines and people tapping on keyboards, not breaking-news bulletins and dueling political commentators. Good luck.

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Ask a Boss: Cable News at My Office Is Giving Me Anxiety!