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  • 11 October 2022
  • 1 year

Responding to Climate Anxiety in the Workplace

Emily Fournier

Content Specialist

So far, 2022 has been dominated by a host of extreme weather events: record-breaking heatwaves, life-threatening droughts and floods, and catastrophic hurricanes. According to the Copernicus Climate Change Service, Europe just experienced its hottest summer on record, while waves of extreme heat broke nearly 7,000 daily records across the US between June and September. Meanwhile in Asia, catastrophic flooding in Pakistan has swept away over 1.5 million homes—a staggering 88 percent of the total nationwide—leaving a third of the nation underwater amidst an unprecedented monsoon season. Now, as the US enters the second half of what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts to be an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season, Hurricane Fiona has already caused significant damage after ripping through Puerto Rico, wiping out homes, roads, and infrastructure, and producing a near-total power outage on the island, with more storms expected to make landfall in the coming weeks.

These events—which make up only a small snapshot of a whirlwind of weather-related catastrophes that have taken place so far this year—are yet another example of the devastating effects of climate change, and are set to become more commonplace in the coming years as the global temperature continues to rise. While those directly impacted by these events face heavier burdens—losing access to vital resources including clean air and water, food, shelter, electricity, land, and community—no region of the world is untouched by the risk of disaster, leaving virtually everyone vulnerable against the threat of climate change and susceptible to the damaging consequences this can have on the state of their mental health and wellbeing.

One such consequence—which can affect everyone regardless of proximity to disaster—is the feeling of existential dread or “climate anxiety,” defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as “the chronic fear of environmental doom.” In a joint report released this past April by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, it was revealed that a majority of Americans (64 percent) experience at least some anxiety or worry about climate change, while Google reports that in 2021 alone, searches for “climate anxiety” and “what can I do about climate change” rose by 565 and 2,600 percent, respectively—signifying a massive increase in climate-related concerns across the globe.

In addition to feelings of anxiety or worry, emerging research has also linked climate anxiety to a plethora of negative mental health outcomes, including stress, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, panic attacks, irritability, insomnia, grief, anger, social withdrawal, and even suicidal ideation.1 Consequently, climate anxiety not only threatens the state of employee health and wellbeing, but the efficiency of an organization as well—resulting in decreased productivity, poor performance and low morale, increased absenteeism, and higher turnover. This makes it imperative that employers adequately address the presence of climate anxiety in their workplace. To do so, leaders need to have a working understanding of what climate anxiety is, how it manifests in their employees, and how it impacts their organization.

What is Climate Anxiety?

In essence, anxiety is an intense and persistent worry about the future, derived from a perceived loss or lack of control; it’s a state of uncertainty over what lies ahead, and a feeling of powerlessness against life’s unpredictable nature. Climate anxiety takes this a step further, as psychologist Maria Ojala likens it to a fear for the sake of others, rather than for oneself. For example, in a March 2021 report, the Yale Program on Climate Communications revealed that 71 percent of Americans said they were worried about the harm that global warming will cause to future generations—much higher than the number of Americans who said they will be harmed themselves (45 percent). And with this concern for others, Ojala argues, comes intense pangs of guilt—an unshakeable feeling that we are all at fault for what’s happening to the climate, and that the onus is on us to fix it, as Yale’s report further revealed that nearly two-thirds of Americans feel a personal sense of responsibility to reduce global warming.

Because the threat of climate change is so constant and all-encompassing, so is the sense of anxiety that people experience about its impact. “We’re talking about really an overarching sense of anxiety,” admits James Sussex, a Clinical Team Lead at Workplace Options. “What I mean by that is we’re not talking about anxiety at a microlevel, we’re talking about anxiety on a really big scale here, and the almost shared consciousness between people that we have this massive problem on our hands, and the sense of existential dread that comes along with that, that drives this anxiety.” And because this state of anxiety is so constant, he argues, it disrupts not only people’s personal lives but their work lives as well.

How Climate Anxiety Presents at Work

When it comes to analyzing climate anxiety at work, Sussex argues that it’s important to remember that anxiety can impact people in many different ways, and thus present itself in a variety of ways as well. “I think to some degree, we’re able to hold on to anxiety and sort of live and work with anxiety,” he asserts, “like maybe if it’s at, say, a five or a six out of 10, where 10 means the highest. But it doesn’t take too much to tip that over the edge to a seven or an eight—levels that are less manageable.” And it’s then, he admits—when people are operating at an eight or nine out of 10 as opposed to a five or a six—that managers start to notice that they’re not coping with work, not coping with their responsibilities, or their tasks and assignments. “And this might be,” he adds, “because their climate anxiety, and the weight of the existential dread that comes with it, has become far too much.”

But while it might be easy to spot employees who are operating at a nine or a 10, Sussex warns that for others, these signs may be less obvious, as employees experience different levels of anxiety with differing means of coping with them. It might be, for instance, that a manager observes that they haven’t heard from their employee in a while. While on the surface everything might look fine—perhaps they’re still turning in their work on time, staying productive, and maintaining a good performance—a closer look reveals that they’ve become withdrawn from work. Or maybe, perhaps, there has been a decrease in performance, or an increase in irritability and hostility toward coworkers: “those sorts of things might be less obvious signs as well.”

Then, of course, climate anxiety might also present as physical symptoms, including tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, muscle tension, bruxism (teeth grinding), and jaw clenching. Depending on its severity and the speed of its onset, it can also lead to panic attacks. “Imagine you’re riding a bicycle,” Sussex begins, “and the road ahead looks absolutely clear, and then all of a sudden you hit an invisible brick wall at 20 miles an hour. You couldn’t see this big wall at all, you didn’t know it was coming, but all of a sudden it was there. Anxiety is like that: it might be that they go from being able to manage it, they might be in work and operating at a four or five out of 10. Then, perhaps, they get a sense of being short of breath, but may not be able to name or identify that as anxiety or climate anxiety. Then all of a sudden, they go from that into a full-blown panic attack. It can really come on all of a sudden.”

How Climate Anxiety Impacts Employers

Ultimately, what this perpetual state of anxiety means for employers is that they’re dealing with higher rates of burnout and absenteeism, in addition to decreased productivity and profitability. And as McKinsey insights have revealed that uncaring leaders, a lack of meaningful work, and a lack of concern for health and wellbeing are among the top factors driving the Great Resignation, climate anxiety can even be attributed to the high turnover rates that so many industries have endured over the last year, as employees consider whether their work or their employer is contributing to the problem.

This is especially true for the younger sectors of the workforce—namely Gen Z, who experience climate anxiety more acutely—and are much more likely than older generations to act on it, which includes terminating their employment. In Australia, for example, young workers have reportedly left organizations if they thought their employer was not doing enough to address climate anxiety; whereas a recent report from Bupa, a health insurance company in the UK, found that nearly two-thirds of young workers aged 18-22 said it was important that their employers act on environmental issues, while over half (59 percent) said that their employers’ demonstrated commitment to environmental issues would determine how long they stayed with the organization.

That said, while the disruptions caused by both climate change and climate anxiety pose substantial threats to the efficiency of an organization, the good news is that taking action to respond to the anxiety and mitigate the effects of environmental disasters can not only help to improve retention, but also attract new talent. As young workers search for jobs that align with their personal values and offer a sense of purpose, by making oneself as climate-relevant as possible, employers can reassure potential recruits that their work with the organization will contribute to the fight against climate change, even within industries that are not directly involved with the environment.

How Employers Can Address Climate Anxiety

Just this month, Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, announced that he would be transferring 100 percent of his company’s stock to a trust and non-profit organization in an effort to fight the growing climate crisis in a letter published on the organization’s website aptly titled, “Earth is now our only shareholder.” This follows a long history of organizational efforts to support the environment, including donating one percent of sales each year for nearly 40 years, and being one of the first organizations to become a certified B Corporation, a designation allotted to organizations who demonstrate a high social and environmental performance.

As many organizations start to take bold steps such as Chouinard’s to showcase their commitment to the environment—with even more going green—some employers may feel as though they have to rewrite their entire values and mission statement or completely overhaul their operating systems in order to have a positive impact on the climate crisis. But just as the comparison between individual acts and collective action can falsely leave employees feeling powerless against climate change, employers should not feel discouraged about the power of small acts to inspire change; acts that include creating a workplace culture that welcomes open conversation about climate change and its impact on employee wellbeing, providing support to employees struggling with climate anxiety, and fostering a sense of togetherness both within the organization and the surrounding community to collaborate on small-scale efforts to support the environment.

That said, below are some simple yet powerful ways that employers can combat climate anxiety in the workplace:

  • First and foremost, talk about it. “I think the baseline for me is to talk about it,” says Sussex. “Talk about this dread, this fear, and this anxiety, because if you give it airtime, it reduces the size of the problem—and of course, this is a massive problem that we’re all facing, but carrying on as if nothing is happening is not the solution.”

Sussex argues that, like all anxiety, climate anxiety will continue to get worse the more it is avoided. “It’s a bit like, say, your basement’s flooded, and you’re ignoring the leak that’s in the basement and mold starts to grow up the wall. The more you shut the door and leave it in the dark, the worse it’s going to become. But if you open the door, let some air in, get the heaters down there, you can reduce it, mitigate it—and it’s the same with anxiety.”

While avoidance is one part of the problem when it comes to effectively managing anxiety, another issue that many people face is a lack of understanding or awareness of what it is they’re experiencing. Pooja Tilvawala, Youth Engagement Manager at the Climate Initiative, who leads “climate courage workshops” dedicated to educating communities on how they can express and utilize their feelings about the climate crisis, admits that many individuals she meets don’t understand that what they’re experiencing is climate anxiety, or lack the vocabulary to describe what they’re feeling as such.

With that said, Sussex emphasizes that giving climate anxiety airtime and having important conversations about what’s happening with the environment and what’s happening to their workers’ communities is a crucial way not only to respond to climate anxiety in the workplace, but to help employees manage their anxiety on their own. “I’m talking about having a process group, a breakout group, a scheduled time in the team dining room,” he urges, adding, “even in a situation where you can’t have everybody not working at the same time, you can set up a couple of groups just to have a roundtable to ask, ‘How’s everybody feeling?’ ‘Wow, record temperatures this week. How’s everybody feeling? Because the news is reporting this is post-apocalyptic.'”

Ultimately, the easiest way to respond to climate anxiety is to acknowledge it, he says. “It might take a little bit to get off the ground, but employees will start to open up—and once they get going, it’s quite hard to stop, because people want to talk about these things. And so what? Why can’t work be a safe space where you can have an hour or maybe an hour and a half to talk about some of these things that are going on around us?”

  • Practice sustainability—and in a fun and meaningful way. Even without changing larger organizational structures and operations, there is plenty that employers can do to foster a sustainable workplace. These practices include going paperless, adopting alternatives such as Office 365 or Google Workspace; installing a water refill station and encouraging employees to ditch plastic and use reusable water bottles instead; and developing a comprehensive on-site recycling program and encouraging employees to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Even shifting to a remote or hybrid work schedule can be an effective way to practice sustainability, as research conducted in Spain during the COVID-19 pandemic found that teleworking even just three days a week could reduce the amount of nitrogen dioxide in the air by as much as eight percent.

While practicing sustainability is an important way to reassure employees that they can take action against climate change, having to engage in these practices or be reminded of their carbon footprint and the impact their actions have on the environment can make some feel depressed or disparaged. Because of the heaviness of the topic at hand, Sussex recommends that employers try to make sustainability efforts fun and meaningful for their workers. “Another way to support climate anxiety is, yes, the practical things that the workplace does, but also I think it’s about meaning-making,” he says. “Yes, we’ve got this massive problem on our hands, but if we constantly think about it as a massive problem, it’s unmanageable, and of course it’s out of control. But maybe employers can have HR policies rolled out, mapping out what employees can do as individuals that will collectively make a difference.”

In order to make it more exciting for employees, Sussex adds that employers can try making a game out of being sustainable. “You can bring in anything you want in terms of competition, or you could bring in incentives and rewards,” he suggests. “Say, for instance, ‘Who’s recycled the most soda cans this week?’ You can have things like that to make it fun, and to make it manageable.”

  • Get involved with local groups or create workplace groups dedicated to sustainability and combating climate change. According to Sussex, one way that employers can maximize their sustainability efforts is by establishing some sort of structure, regime, or group dedicated to environment-related projects. “We talk about recycling and things like that as a way to combat climate change and reduce anxiety, but it actually might be about getting involved in local groups or even setting up workplace groups that give responsibility to the staff and give them a chance to really drive that change,” he says, adding, “It doesn’t have to just be something that HR or managers roll out, it could be a collective group of people that come together in the workplace; something organized for the staff by the staff.”

In addition to combating climate anxiety, another benefit to establishing or joining groups that employers should keep in mind is their potential to attract new recruits and consumers. In its 2021 research brief regarding global consumers’ views on sustainability, IBM reported that around 70 percent of current and prospective employees said that a sustainability program makes an employer more appealing, while a new global study conducted by Oracle revealed that the same percentage of consumers said they would stop supporting an organization if their sustainability initiatives were lacking. To ensure that sustainability efforts are successful, employers should consider organizing a green team at work, or forming green alliances with environmentalist groups and getting involved in local projects like park or beach clean-ups or tree planting events. By sending workers out into the community, it will help them to see that their actions do have an impact, and will alleviate some of their guilt and anxiety.

  • Design and execute educational and wellness programs concentrated on climate anxiety. On the subject of guilt, Sussex admits that a lot of the steps that employers can take to support their climate-anxious employees are ultimately rooted in alleviating some of their guilt. “It can be from a therapeutic perspective—looking at, ‘where does this guilt come from?’ ‘Is there a sense of guilt around something that you do?’ ‘Why is that?'” He says that in the past, he’s heard people talk about feeling guilty about driving and their carbon footprint they accrue as a result, as well as people who feel guilty about using deodorant spray because they’ve heard it contributes to the tear in the Ozone layer. “And there’s a sense of guilt around that, but also a sense of anger,” he adds. “I think if we can drill down into that sense of frustration and sense of anger, we can turn it into something that is actionable,” he argues, adding, “Feeling angry is a very doing emotion.”

While employers can certainly take the clinical route to providing therapeutic support to their employees—like what many colleges and universities have started to do just within the last year—employers can also look to implement educational and wellness programs that will help employees reduce guilt, build resiliency, and gain confidence in their abilities to take action against environmental threats. These may include initiatives such as the “climate courage workshops” that Tilvawala hosts, or events like the guided meditations through outdoor trails and journaling sessions that founders Jennifer King and Timothy Fredel promote at Rugged Elegance Foundation. Regardless of the activities or topics that employers use to design these programs, they should ultimately aim to inspire workers to channel their anger into something positive or productive.

  • Share positive news about the climate and celebrate workplace victories. While it’s easy for employees to get caught up in today’s never-ending cycle of one bad news story after another, it’s important that employees also hear about the good things that are happening to the planet—and employers should consider having a plan in place to make sure these stories reach them. “I mean these days we have so many different ways of proliferating information,” Sussex testifies. “Social media, for example; internal media; internal social media like Yammer and things like that, which isn’t always utilized but organizations should really try to leverage that.”

Sussex adds that organizations can create weekly or monthly bulletins, and encourage their employees to share good climate news stories that they hear about—and not just on a national or international level, but even on a local level. “For example,” he says, “I know that down road from me we’ve just had the UK’s biggest wind farm built, and this is a great step in the right direction, but nobody knows about it—because nobody’s talking about it. So, it’s about actually proliferating that information and getting the word out there: ‘This is a really big victory, an offshore wind farm like that, and this is going to effect a huge change around here.'”

In addition to creating internal bulletins and newsletters, employers can also encourage their workers to check out a growing number of sites dedicated to spotlighting positive climate stories from around the world, including The Daily Climate and the Good News Network—the latter of which includes a story about how the previously mentioned tear in the Ozone layer is predicted to close in the next 50 years.

  • Break down the stigma surrounding anxiety. Lastly, the best way to support employees struggling with climate anxiety is to eliminate the stigma surrounding their feelings. “Anxiety is not a disease or an issue,” Sussex declares. “It’s a warning. Anxiety in itself is not an emotion; it’s a mind state that’s comprised of different emotions. So, when we’re getting anxious, that’s actually the body trying to get our attention and to tell us something, that something is wrong,” he goes on, adding, “And actually the more we sort of tune into that and the less we avoid, the more we can hear what’s actually going on for us and realize that some of that—or a lot of that nowadays—is actually a collective kind of consciousness.”

He goes on to liken anxiety to information, a fair assessment given as research shows that a common side effect of climate anxiety is that it can cause people to search for more information about the climate crisis, as well as potential solutions. Consequently, some psychologists argue against pathologizing climate anxiety, deeming it a fair and even healthy reaction to an alarming situation.

As proof of its rationality, Sussex says to just take a look at some of the statistics. “Why is anxiety on the rise so much? Why is depression on the rise so much?” He asks. “Is it because there’s something going wrong out there? Because I think it’s a lot of that, actually, and I think that breaking down those stigmas will go a long, long way.”

Workplace Options helps individuals balance their work, family, and personal needs to become healthier, happier, and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class member support, effectiveness, and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals, and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. To learn more email us at service@workplaceoptions.com

Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

References

  1. Dodds, J. (2021). The psychology of climate change. BJPsych Bulletin, 45(4), 222-226. https://doi.org/10.1192%2Fbjb.2021.18

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