Should you keep politics out of your career?

Advocacy is a core function of many health professions, including nursing and medicine. So why are we socialized not to engage with politically touchy subjects at work?

Funding for much of our work in science, medicine, and education comes from the government. Sometimes it comes from corporations that make pharmaceuticals or devices. Even in democracies like the U.S., legally protected free speech does not prevent organizations from restricting their employee’s participation in political activities or certain kinds of speech while working.

The current global public health crisis is igniting fierce debates around hot-button issues of workforce safety, inequality, prejudice, disparities, and personal freedoms. As the world changes rapidly, I am hearing lots of early-career folks wondering how to balance the call to engagement on divisive topics with the need for career stability. My profession, nursing, has a long history of activism and political engagement. I also work for a large university, where political engagement can rock the boat and raise eyebrows. This is a precarious position.

Here’s the rub: public health issues are inherently political. Think of political advocacy around tobacco and vaping, and food. These are everyday public health concerns and they are steeped in politics, yet they rarely result in career-ending political feuds; this kind of politics is generally tolerated in academic institutions. However, as we are now seeing, the relationship between politics and public health is stronger with rare and catastrophic events like the COVID-19 pandemic. Those of us in science and health professions are facing the ramifications of political decisions daily, such as access to PPE supplies, access to ventilators and medications, guidance to the public about masks and distancing, and travel restrictions. We feel this impact acutely, and many of us feel compelled to voice our opinions.

Yet, we may find ourselves at risk if we speak up about an issue with political implications, either at work or in outside public forums. Voicing dissent to institutional policy, governmental policy, or anything in between can be professionally and personally damaging. In the U.S., hospitals have been ordering staff not to speak to the media and terminating those who do not comply. This behavior can have a chilling effect on others’ willingness to voice concerns about safety. As a result of these gag orders, high-level decision-making is often missing key voices and information. The case of Dr. Li Wenliang, the Chinese physician who sounded early warnings of the dangers of the novel coronavirus, was reprimanded by the Chinese government, and later died of the disease, is a tragic example of just how the stakes are. Navigating the boundaries of political and scientific speech in life-or-death situations is not something we learned in graduate school.

The relationships among scientific data, lived experience, and government messaging are complicated, but that doesn’t mean they are untouchable in a professional context. Medical journals do not universally shy away from political perspectives. The Lancet, for example, recently  published an opinion piece pulling no punches in its assessment of American political leadership: Michael Marmot writes, “Apart from the mendacity, incompetence, narcissism, and disdain for expertise of the man at the top, there may be strong messages about the nature of US society and the response to the pandemic.” Not all professionals and academics are willing to voice such forceful political opinions, but this example shows that even strongly worded opinions can be embraced.

Can mixing politics and work hurt your career? Definitely. Is it possible to practice your profession apolitically? Maybe. Is that something you want to do? You have to decide.

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