Why sustainable businesses need to talk eco-anxiety
25 May 2023
In this article, Sustainable Business MSc course leader, Dr Flor Gerardou and Falmouth University’s Sustainability Coordinator, Jake Causley discuss why it’s essential for businesses to start talking about eco-anxiety.
To achieve a more sustainable business model, companies not only have to embed a sustainable business strategy into their practice but also educate and rally their workforce towards more sustainable goals. This can be tricky, and businesses need to be cautious about the impact this has on their employees’ mental health.
It’s often the case that, through climate change education, alarming facts about our global ecological situation are highlighted, which in turn causes concern for most of us. These worries and feelings about the climate crisis have a name – eco-anxiety. Since around 2017, this phenomenon has seen increased media coverage and academic interest. Still, little attention has been put on the role of businesses to support their employees with eco-anxiety.
What is eco-anxiety?
There are different forms of eco-anxiety, but in general terms, this catch-all phrase describes the feelings and emotions we experience in relation to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. Though not a clinical condition, the symptoms of eco-anxiety are a natural human response – they show we have strong empathy for and connection to the natural world and the threats facing our planet.
Symptoms of eco-anxiety include feelings of worry, anger and sadness. People affected more seriously often experience a sense of overwhelm and powerlessness. Feelings at this end of the scale are particularly important to address because these often result in us feeling 'stuck', depressed, and ultimately unable to take action. However, it's also important to recognise that eco-anxiety can exist as positive emotions, such as motivation, drive and determination. In many ways, these symptoms could be seen as useful.
How can we deal with eco-anxiety?
The key to dealing with eco-anxiety is learning to communicate and make space to acknowledge our own and other people’s feelings – giving us the opportunity to reflect, chat and connect with one another. This space is often absent in the workplace, instead employees are expected to be happy, positive, and work towards the next business goal - with no room for the waves of emotions that are sure to exist along the way.
Why does eco-anxiety matter in business?
There’s no denying that more and more people are experiencing eco-anxiety. Force of Nature's 'The rise of eco-anxiety report' (2021) stated that 70% of participants experienced a feeling of hopelessness when they thought about the climate crisis, and only 26% of participants felt like they had a clear idea of how they could contribute to solving climate change. The same year, a study of eco-anxiety by the University of York and think tank Global Future revealed that 78% of people reported some level of fear about climate change, with 41% reporting being very much or extremely fearful. The study also found that concerns about climate change are almost as common in older and working-class people as in the young or middle class, suggesting that eco-anxiety is a global issue that spans class, age and race.
In economic terms, businesses remain key providers of goods and services, but the expectations of what companies should do has changed. Businesses are now expected to consider social and environmental issues within their business model and communicate sustainability challenges with their workforce and target audience. This communication brings a responsibility to understand and deal with phenomena such as eco-anxiety.
Ethical consumerism and investment have increased over time – partly accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Deloitte's Sustainability Consumer report showed that 85% of consumers in the UK adopted a more sustainable lifestyle during the pandemic, and a third of consumers looked for sustainable businesses to buy from. As the wealth of the green generation (millennials and Generation Z) has risen, the business community is aware of this increase in market potential and the consequence of failing to meet society's expectations. Thus, businesses are likely to continue the climate conversation, however it is important that this conversation should be conducted responsibly.
At the core of any business are the people who work for them. A recent survey of 4,000 workers in the UK and US captured how attitudes towards personal values are changing. It found that nearly half of employees (45% in the UK and 51% in the US) said they would consider resigning from their job if the values of the company did not align with their own. Just under 50% of Gen Z and millennial employees reported leaving a company for this reason (48% in the UK and 44% in the US). In addition, research is starting to look at the impact eco-anxiety has on employees' engagement in sustainability efforts. Early findings in the hospitality sector suggest that intense eco-anxiety could weaken employees' voluntary actions in response to climate change (see Jude et al., 2022). Thus, eco-anxiety will likely affect business productivity, and negative emotions might hinder a company’s sustainability efforts.
How can businesses offer eco-anxiety support to employees?
Businesses should share information on how people can help reduce their individual and collective environmental impacts. Communications with clear actions gives people tangible approaches which can help them channel emotions and mobilise change. Particular focus should be given to the roles and activities employees can take within the business they work for – this will help drive a sense of community amongst staff.
Highlight the positives
Try to create information or communications that are positive and empowering. Communications are historically too negative, distressing and impersonal – people are much more likely to engage with and connect to information or actions where the benefits are highlighted, and they feel rewarded in the process.
Create safe spaces
Companies should create spaces for eco-anxiety - and, more widely, negative emotions and difficult conversations - within places of work. For instance, it could be a regular, in-person climate café or even a space at work where resources are deposited for people to engage with.
Employees are more likely to get on board with a business' sustainability agenda if they feel involved from the outset. Offer employees the chance to participate in strategy creation and decision-making processes. Effectively communicate ambitions and targets while communicating how the workforce can help to drive positive change within the company.
Encourage sustainable behaviours
Shift the environment to help enable employees to make positive behavioural changes. Businesses should consider the core areas of sustainability – energy, food and diet, travel, and products and services – and how you can make the most sustainable options available to employees. For example, offer dairy alternatives such as oat milk, install facilities to encourage people to cycle to work, or set up a 'swap shop' where employees can bring pre-loved items for others to take.
Take the next steps to becoming a change-making business leader
If you want to learn more about how businesses can support employees with eco-anxiety, then explore our Sustainable Business MSc (Online) course. Through a blend of case studies, webinars, guest talks and tasks, you’ll explore topics such as conscious change management, sustainable transformation, and social and cultural development.