Explore how leaders can provide environmental leadership and mental health resources in light of intensifying repercussions in the workplace from eco-anxiety.

Research indicates that the global climate crisis is doing more than just negatively impacting employee well-being, especially among younger generations. Climate anxiety – or “eco-anxiety,” as the term was coined in 2007 – is hindering employee performance and crippling some organizations’ talent attraction and retention programs, according to new data.

This same data indicates that employees both want AND need their senior leaders to take the initiative when it comes to championing workplace climate awareness programs, as well as – and perhaps just as important – ensuring that emotionally intelligent conversations are being had and mental wellness resources are available to support workforce resiliency in the face of eco-anxiety.

How can you demonstrate thoughtful environmental leadership? Explore how to mitigate climate anxiety in your organization and hold space for those struggling with this stress.

What do the numbers reveal about climate anxiety?

The scientific journal Nature published a recent article that reported in a survey of 10,000 people ages 16 through 25 in 10 countries, nearly 60% of respondents were highly worried about climate change, and more than 45% said that these feelings affected their daily lives, such as their ability to work or sleep. More than 55% said that climate change made them feel powerless, and 58% were worried for future generations.

And, it’s not just the younger workforce who are experiencing climate anxiety. A 2023 Pew Research Center survey found that the majority of Americans think climate change is causing harm to people in the United States today, and 63% expect things to get worse in their lifetime.

The Conference Board’s December 2023 report highlighted just how widespread the threat of eco-anxiety is on a global scale, impacting all generations of employees:

Eco-anxiety is increasingly prevalent across all working age groups and presents a growing risk to employee well-being. Some 43% of survey respondents say they experience eco-anxiety often or almost always. Reported impacts of eco-anxiety include a sense of powerlessness, work demotivation, and lost focus.

-Key insight from The Conference Board’s full report: Eco-anxiety: A Growing Threat to Employee Productivity and Well-being

How are senior leaders to respond to workplace anxiety?

The Conference Board report summarized (among other directives) that organizations that “listen and respond to their employees’ concerns can mitigate risk and enhance employee wellbeing, resilience, and productivity.”

But prior to responding, perhaps leaders must first evaluate their own understanding, emotions, and practices, giving themselves time to sit with the emerging data and growing global concern.

My Experience with Climate Anxiety

In one week alone, a dozen climate related stories popped up in my news feeds. Heatwaves, tornados, droughts, wildfires, and floods across the world were reported, and yet another atmospheric river is heading to my home state of California. As an executive coach, I’ve spent my entire career supporting individuals within their professional lives, and the climate has rarely entered into my conversations other than in casual small talk about the weather. Until recently, that is.

Yes, Earth Day celebrations this year generated increased awareness, but even before that, I had been sensing a more pervasive sense of uneasiness. I began looking into the research around mental health and the climate, and – coincidentally around the same time – I was invited to participate in two different eco-awareness initiatives in my local community. Eager to learn more, I accepted the invitations. Little did I know that doing so would awaken something within my own sense of purpose and change the trajectory of this next chapter of my career.

What emerged was an opportunity for me to take a deep look at my own habits (had I really just picked up my dry-cleaning in yet another unrecyclable single-use plastic bag?) and my assumptions (certainly some ingenious entrepreneur somewhere was working on a fix to bring CO2 emissions down, right?). I began to see my own personal complicity in the climate crisis, and with that realization came overwhelming feelings of despair and guilt. Suddenly, my quest for knowledge and understanding took a very personal turn.

I began to question my relationship to the natural world and the interconnectedness of all life on our beautiful planet. As someone extensively trained in counseling, mental health interventions, and mindfulness practices, I was able to work through the uncomfortable emotions I was experiencing, but, “What,” I thought, “about others who might not have the same resources and tools? Who were they talking to, and how were they processing? How were my corporate clients, their teams, and their employees?”

My personal process had then come full circle, and I was ready to dedicate myself to supporting corporations and individuals embarking upon their own climate-awareness journeys and mental wellness practices.

What is the definition of eco-anxiety?

The Inner Green Deal, a non-profit organization, defines the term eco-anxiety as a form of anxiety, specifically triggered by a fear of environmental damage or ecological disaster.

Their research has identified 6 categories relating to eco-anxiety:

  1. Worry – Worry for one’s own wellbeing and that of future descendants and the next generation.
  2. Empathy – Empathy as “secondary suffering”: experiencing negative emotions because they see others suffer, for example global communities, animals, or ecosystems.
  3. Conflicts with Family, Friends, or Colleagues – Resulting from different attitudes or behaviors regarding climate science or climate mitigation, often accompanied by negative emotions, usually anger or frustration.
  4. Being Disturbed by the Changes of the Environment – Droughts or warmer summers can result in physical symptoms like heat distress, panic attack-like symptoms associated with heatwaves, or lead to confusion or uncertainty.
  5. Mental Health Symptoms – In line with the symptoms of anxiety disorders such as panic disorder and mood disorders.
  6. Helplessness and Frustration – Caused by the magnitude of the challenge and partly by the lack of control over it.

The Conference Board succinctly states that eco-anxiety is a “sense of distress related to climate and ecological change, along with the wider impacts of climate-related disasters, mass migration, and conflict over scarce resources.”

It’s important to note, especially as leaders, that climate anxiety is often triggered not just by reports of natural disasters (for instance), but also by the upsetting emotional burden that many carry for the “world at large” coupled with feelings of helplessness or powerlessness to change the outcome. Consider that employees might arrive at work already overwhelmed by the magnitude of these problems, and THIS is when organizations can activate emotionally intelligent leadership practices, considering how best to support their workforce’s mental wellbeing.

Practical and proactive steps for leaders

In a “polycrisis” era marked by pandemics, political strife, social injustices, war, and ecological disasters, pending climate uncertainty is a lot to hold as an individual much less as an organization tasked with the creation of a healthy workplace culture and sustainable workplace practices.

Before embarking upon company-wide changes or conversations, perhaps first pause and examine your company’s existing values, commitments, and actions, ensuring that a strong foundation is already built before erecting additional eco-anxiety management programs. This is a powerful moment to “be a great coach in the workplace” by asking some of the following questions:

What efforts are already being made to reach sustainability goals?

How is a culture of belonging and inclusion being fostered?

What investment is being made into providing mental health resources so people can take care of their own wellbeing and thrive?

The next best thing might be to just listen carefully for developments in the climate crisis and lean courageously into the conversation. Create the space for honest and open dialogue.

Chris Johnstone, referenced in The Conference Board report and who is a wellbeing specialist and one of the authors of Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In With Unexpected Resilience and Creative Power, emphasizes the importance of active listening and presents further recommendations for organizations, suggesting that they:

  • Validate eco-anxiety as a normal and healthy reaction to the current environmental crisis, sending the message to employees that their feelings stem from their awareness and concern.
  • Then, actively address the root causes of this anxiety by implementing measures to combat the climate crisis, demonstrating to employees that the organization is also aware and committed to taking action.
  • Finally, introduce practices that support employees in managing their anxiety and bolstering their resilience and motivation for positive action.

Certainly, you may want to refer an employee who expresses that their feelings are negatively impacting their life and their work to your EAP partners and/or other mental health resources to ensure that they are supported adequately during intense seasons of anxiety. Employees should always know about and be encouraged to use these resources.

What I have found while teaching stress reduction courses is that for many of us, just naming what we are feeling and bringing our fears out into the open can help to diffuse the power it holds over us. Taking collective action to combat climate change in addition to healthy dialogue can be an even greater method to manage eco-anxiety: a double win for the planet and her people.

Here are some discussion prompts that have been helpful in my own experience surrounding climate anxiety:

  • What feelings am I aware of around the state of our world?
  • What is alive for me around the climate crisis, the poly-crisis?
  • What are the ways I am coping with the strong emotions I may be feeling that are less healthy? …and more healthy?
  • What one small action can I take to feel a sense of agency?
  • What do I feel calling and purpose around when it comes to our planet?
  • What other like-minded individuals, employee resource groups, and community organizations might I connect with?
  • What might we do as a work team together?

Even as an experienced coach and counselor, I am still learning as I embark on this journey to be a more thoughtful planetary citizen. What I do know for sure, however, is that the complexities that we face at this unique time in our human history need all of us to step forward. In response to the current polycrisis, our communities need us to listen deeply without judging, politicizing, or polarizing. We need new understandings of our current dilemma, new narratives, and safe containers for the collaborative dialogue that is necessary to support our own well-being, the well-being of our employees, our clients, our communities, and our earth.

Contact Churchill to Support Your Organization’s Sustainability and Employee Mental Health Solutions

Churchill Leadership Group is ready to empower your organization to thrive no matter what support your organization needs during this global climate crisis. Our coaches are equipped to engage in and facilitate your organization’s conversations, to encourage and help you develop company-wide wellness resources, and to provide additional thoughtful outlets for constructive team building and sustainable actions.

Contact us today to learn more about how our individually tailored coaching solutions can empower you and your team to thrive.

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AUTHOR BIO

Shannon Jordan, M.A. is a board certified coach, and national board certified counselor, and executive coaching partner with Churchill Leadership Group. She serves as the co-director of workplace programs for the University of California, San Diego Center for Mindfulness. Shannon is a certified Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher. She has consulted across industry sectors, having worked with organizations such as eBay, PayPal, Oracle, Genentech and AMEX through consulting partners Churchill Leadership Group and others. She is passionate about helping people connect the dots between their inner game (self-awareness, strengths, motivators, values mindsets) and their outer game (business outcomes such as performance, innovation, belonging, and inclusion). Shannon recently participated in an Eco-Awareness pilot program funded by the Bess Family Foundation, entered a year-long teacher training program in Mindfulness Based Sustainable Transformation, and enrolled in MIT’s certificate program in Sustainability for Industry.

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