How to support staff through climate anxiety

With the dust settling on COP26 and the environment crisis hitting the headlines more than ever, businesses have a 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 per cent of young people were experiencing climate anxiety – a chronic fear of environmental doom – and 45 per cent 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 control – the actions we can take to alleviate our worries. Unfortunately, climate change feels 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. 

How does climate anxiety affect employee wellbeing?

While it is 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 its values. 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.

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. 

Moving to net zero feels like it’s about giving things up, 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. 

Help employees make better choices

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 that 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 cycle to work by buying bikes for employees. By setting these incentives for better choices, companies can nudge their employees into a better decision. 

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 behavior. Company policies can encourage better behaviour and ease climate anxiety worries while inspiring their people.

Nic Marks is a happiness expert, statistician, CEO of Friday Pulse and creator of the Happy Planet Index