A light in the darkness

Dr Jan Maskell considers eco-anxiety within the sustainability profession, and how we can build up our resilience to feelings of environmental doom

We all feel anxiety – we have evolved to feel it in response to dangerous situations, as it helps guide us to safety. However, anxiety becomes serious when it overwhelms us, leading to distress, anxiety disorders or depression. 

As sustainability professionals, we are aware of the implications of climate change. Not only do we have to deal with our own psychological responses, we may also have to deal with resistance at work to what we are trying to achieve. The American Psychological Association’s 2017 report on the impact of climate change on mental health describes eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. This can express itself in feelings of grief, loss, rage, despair, guilt or shame.

Climate change is a pernicious problem due to its unique character and interconnection with other issues, and this affects our psychological response to it. For some, the issue remains an abstract threat – which means people think it is more likely to affect other people, in other places, in the distant future. 

“Part of our role is to continue to be constructive – and to encourage others to do so”

Many cognitive biases make climate change seem less important – including:

  •  Discounting future risks and rewards
  •  Optimism bias about our ability to mitigate potential harm
  •  Justifying the status quo
  •  Affective forecasting errors that lead us to assume the future will generally resemble the present. 

The ‘blamelessness of unintentional action’ means that, in the absence of a clear villain, there is no one to blame but ourselves. This can trigger a range of defensive reactions. Social media is increasing judgement for actions such as eating meat, flying or failing to recycle. Increased awareness of what we should be doing, thinking that this is having little or no impact, and concern about the future can lead us to feel frustrated.

Part of our role as professionals is to continue to be constructive – and to encourage others to do so. The impacts on our mental health of trying to remain positive can be far reaching in terms of stress, anxiety and depression. 

The Health and Safety Executive defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’, and has outlined six main areas that can lead to work-related stress if they are not managed properly:

  •  Inability to cope with the demands of your job
  •  Inability to control the way you do your work
  •  Not getting enough information or support
  •  Having trouble with relationships at work
  •  Lack of clarity regarding role and responsibilities
  •  Not being fully engaged with workplace change.

All of these apply as much to sustainability professionals as they do to any other role. However, the potential for anxiety about climate change is a stress multiplier for those working in our sector. Issues around support, relationships, control and change implementation can be key factors. Are we supported by stakeholders in our organisations? Do we have good work relationships? How much can we control in our roles? How able are we to implement effective, long-lasting change? If we experience the extremes of inability to function – not being able to eat, sleep or work – then we should seek professional help. 

 

What can we do?

Many organisations are implementing mental health plans and employee assistance programmes to ensure workers thrive. Employers should assess risks to employees’ health; for those whose work involves tackling climate change, this includes consideration of the six HSE factors previously noted. The HSE’s Management Standards may also help to identify and address health risks. Individual action plans can be developed for employees who are suffering from stress. The earlier a problem is tackled, the less impact it will ultimately have. 

There are many things we can do to boost our resilience. The work of Fred Luthans considers the role of positive psychological capital, focusing on hope, resilience and optimism. How do we remain hopeful, resilient and optimistic 
in the face of climate chaos?

Hope is defined by Luthans as “a positive motivational state” that is based on goals – directing our energy towards achieving those goals. Practical approaches for developing hope include setting ‘stretch’ goals. What meaningful and stretching goals do you have at work? You may have organisational goals, but do you set yourself goals in your personal life?

Resilience – the capacity to rebound or bounce back from adversity, conflict and failure, or even positive events, progress, and increased responsibility – can also be developed. When experiencing difficulty, people turn to those they are close to for emotional support. Consider your social networks – who is there to support you? More importantly, how can you cultivate and maintain strong social connections? Connectedness to others is a psychological need and a foundation for wellbeing and protection against eco-anxiety.

Individual mental health is better where there is strong social cohesion. Within organisations, sustainability professionals can encourage this by bringing people together to discuss and agree actions. Talking therapies are beneficial for finding solutions to personal problems, so enabling conversations and discussing the co-benefits of pro-environmental behaviour helps to spread knowledge, facilitate change and bring about social cohesion.

Barbara Fredrickson proposes that experiencing a large number and variety of positive emotions makes us more capable of ‘broadening and building’ ourselves into more optimistic and resilient individuals. We can become more aware of what makes us feel good by focusing on appreciation of what we have, what we do well and what makes us proud. Appreciation of others and showing genuine gratitude also helps us to develop these aspects. 

We can also promote a more optimistic approach by differentiating between things we have control over and things we do not. Why try to change something that is beyond your ability, when there are things you can do? People have claimed that joining a group, such as a zero waste group, has made a positive difference to their wellbeing through the sense of belonging and achievement it offers. Examples of sharing through car clubs, lift shares or ‘maker spaces’ also offer social benefits, as well as economic and environmental ones. 

 

Setting a responsible example

As sustainability professionals, we should be responsible examples for others, signalling the desirability of sustainable norms, communicating to others the value of pro-environmental behaviours and highlighting situations where people are acting sustainably.

Frame solutions in terms of what can be gained. People prefer winning to losing, so options should be presented in terms of benefits. This includes more than physical health and economic growth, ideally emphasising the interpersonal and social benefits of climate action.


Strategies for tackling eco-anxiety

  •  Set yourself challenging goals – personal and professional – to increase your hopefulness, engagement and achievement 
  •  Develop social networks as support and enable conversations about climate change to develop social cohesion
  •  Appreciation of what you have, and of others, increases positive emotions
  •  Focus on what you can do and what you can influence, rather than what you can’t do
  •  Join (or start) a group of like-minded people
  •  Share more.

 

Dr Jan Maskell, PIEMA CPsychol is an occupational psychologist

 

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