How to support staff through climate anxiety

With the dust settling on COP26 and the environment crisis hitting the headlines more than ever, businesses now have a pivotal role to play in allaying employees’ concerns, says Nic Marks

The increasing frequency and ferocity of natural disasters caused by climate change has created headlines full of grim tales. There is a prevalent worry that there may not be much of a world left for our children or grandchildren. A recent global survey in Nature Magazine identified that nearly 60% of young people were experiencing climate anxiety — a chronic fear of environmental doom – and 45% of them stated it was affecting their daily lives.

That anxiety has found its way into the workplace with many wondering if the work they do is compounding the problem. While it may feel overwhelming, all is not lost. Promoting human happiness (at work and outside) doesn’t have to be at odds with creating a sustainable future.

What is climate anxiety?

At its core, anxiety is a worry about the future. It’s a fear based on a lack of control. When treating anxiety, we focus on the things within our locus of control — the actions we can take to alleviate our worries. Unfortunately, climate change exists well beyond that.

People are at their best with problem-solving dangers when dangers are clear and present. But climate change can feel all-encompassing because it’s not easy to narrow down. It looms like an existential threat to our society and we all feel like we’re part of the problem.

There is an element of fear here as well — one that environmentalists have used to motivate politicians and people to do better. Climate anxiety is the threat of extinction, and it has been weaponised into something that they hoped would frighten us into making better decisions.

Unfortunately, these actions have had an unexpected consequence: paralysis. It’s hard to know what to do when the problems feel insurmountable.

How does climate anxiety affect employee wellbeing?

While it’s true that climate anxiety is something that typically only affects people that actively think about it, with the intense frequency of grim climate headlines, people are thinking about it more than ever before. And, because climate anxiety is so existential, it can lead employees to wonder if their work is exacerbating the problem. 

The good news is that it can be inspiring to work for a company that places going green at the forefront of their company values. There’s a reason why inspiration is one of The Five Ways to Happiness at Work. When our work makes a difference, we feel happier about what we do, the people we work with and the companies we work for. This is especially true with companies that take climate problems seriously. It creates in us a sense of achievement and wellbeing.

All companies have the potential to see sustainability as win-win. It will help the business move towards net-zero and inspire their people, which, in turn, is excellent for talent attraction, retention and employee engagement. The key here is to take real action and not go through the motions. People can see through hollow platitudes and insincere gestures can erode morale and trust.

So, how do you address climate anxiety in the workplace?

Start with a company plan

A company can only inspire if it’s doing the right thing, and doing the right thing starts with a plan. As with dealing with anxiety, the first thing to do is to remove uncertainty. This means having real conversations about climate problems.

Every company needs to have policies in place to get to net zero. Usually, these plans focus on three big areas: energy consumption, transportation and material use. Communicating clearly and consistently with employees about how the company is tackling these areas can help people feel part of the solution and not the problem. Remember, even small steps can make a difference. You have to start somewhere, and little victories often lead to bigger ones in the future.

Imagine a better future

Another of The Five Ways to Happiness at Work is fairness. In the context of work, it means that people are respected equally and shown proper appreciation — outcomes and processes are both fair. In the context of climate anxiety, it means recognising that we have a responsibility to future generations.

Moving to net zero feels like it’s about giving up things, and we instinctively don’t like losses. However, it’s an opportunity to imagine a better future where good lives don’t cost the earth. This is why I developed a leading global measure of sustainable wellbeing – the Happy Planet Index (HPI) – combining country data on happiness, health and environmental impact. And, to accompany the Happy Planet Index 2021, I built a personal HPI test to help people reflect on how ‘to create their own good life that doesn’t cost the earth’. Your results match you to a country in the world and offers suggestions on living a more sustainable and happier life.

Help employees make better choices

Speaking of actions, employers can make sustainable choices attractive for employees. Because sustainability is a long game, it’s hard to imagine how our choices impact the future. But the truth is even simple choices can make a big impact.

For example, a company could encourage electric vehicle use by converting premium parking spots into charging stations or encourage people to bike to work by buying bikes for employees. By setting these incentives for better choices, companies can nudge their employees into a better decision.

Another great way to help employees feel less anxious about the climate is to encourage them to volunteer their time in a charity or non-profit that has a green focus. This will help them offset any of the feelings that make them think they’re part of the problem. Research shows that service can lift the spirit and connect people to their local community. It also helps people network more and to develop skills that may be transferable to work.

Creative green options

There are a lot of different ways a company can introduce green initiatives in their company, so be creative and listen to the ideas of your people — you may be surprised with what you’ll hear. Whether its daily things like recycling, meat-free Mondays, cafeterias that serve locally sourced food or companywide activities like planting trees, these actions show your people that you’re willing to do something about making the world better.  

Our lives were never meant to be spent trapped in cubicles. It’s no secret that plant-filled spaces inspire creativity and improve brain function. If possible, consider creating greenspaces in the office. Greenspaces with plants or even wildlife bring increased oxygen, as well as mental health benefits.

What does the future hold for your company?

When we take steps towards a better future, there’s a sense of achievement and wellbeing that comes from it. These actions can help reduce anxiety and removes some of the uncertainty in our world. In the coming years, companies will play a large role in how we transition to net zero. Going green will be a competitive edge as the cost of energy and materials increases and governments penalise irresponsible behaviour. Company policies can encourage better behaviour and ease climate anxiety worries while inspiring their people.

Nic Marks is a Happiness Expert and Statistician, CEO of Friday Pulse™ – and creator of the Happy Planet Index

He worked extensively in public policy and with many governments advising on how to measure and improve wellbeing. In 2010 he gave a popular TED talk on his policy work.

Nic has worked with over 1,000 teams and organisations looking into the ingredients of good work and positive workplace cultures. 

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