Unpacking Eco-Anxiety and Burnout in the Sustainability Sector – Earthfest 2024

May 1, 2024
5 min read

Earthfest had an excellent first instalment at Kings Cross in London earlier in April. 

Hannah Phang joined a fascinating panel on ‘Unpacking Eco-Anxiety and Burnout in the Sustainability Sector’, along with Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams (Climate Psychologists), Lucy Brown (ZSL) and moderated by Clover Hogan (Force of Nature). They discussed the psychological impact of the climate crisis on individuals, particularly young people, and the need for a more holistic approach to mental health in the sustainability movement. 

Our key takeaways were:

  • The world of work needs changing from exploitative 20th century management models that many companies continue to operate under.
  • Young people, who have been found to have low levels of optimism about the future, and those working in sustainability can be particularly vulnerable to burnout due to difficulties in distancing themselves from the work they are undertaking.
  • One of the best ways to combat burnout is by fostering your community and supporting one another.

Here’s a closer look at what was discussed:

What’s the problem?

  • Hannah shared The Now Work’s findings about the changing world of work. Many of our network have experienced high levels of burnout in previous jobs. And the vast majority of companies still work under 20th Century management models, which were designed specifically to extract as much value as possible from workers following the Industrial Revolution, without taking into account all of our other needs.

Who is it affecting?

  • Research has consistently shown that younger generations are both disillusioned and detached when it comes to the current paradigms of work. So how can we actually empower people at work? How can we get them excited, and how can we support them? We need to start looking at how we're actually leveraging the fact that we're the most educated, well connected, informed population ever.
  • Clover’s organisation Force of Nature teamed up with Climate Psychologists on a piece of research that showed that as many as 70% of young people describe themselves as eco-anxious, and 56% of them believe that humanity is doomed. There is also a difference in people’s lived experience of climate change, with many of those in the global north experiencing it as a perceived threat rather than an immediate one.
  • Lucy spoke about her experience at ZSL, where they’re looking at ways to better engage different groups in climate action. They found, for instance, that many of the refugees they spoke to actually had a much closer relationship to nature than we generally find in the UK, and there’s a lot to be learned from those with different lived experiences.
  • People working in the sustainability space often feel personally passionate about climate and social justice, and so are willing to push their limits so much for these bigger causes. They often end up ignoring their own boundaries, and their relationships can suffer, as well as their health.
  • Burnout isn't exclusive to the world of activism, sustainability or climate - Patrick encountered it constantly during his time in the NHS. But there is that added layer that it's not a normal 9-5, it's not something that you just get to switch off. If you're known as the 'climate person' in your group of friends or family, it can become your entire identity. You can end up having a lot of feelings of guilt and shame if you try to set those boundaries or if you try to switch off and compartmentalise.

How can we fix it?

  • As humans, we’re our own first touch point with nature. The more that we can connect to our 'humanness', the more deeply we can connect to the causes that we're all fighting for.
  • We need the people who have the solutions, the connections, and are creating systemic change in this space - but we’re burning through them too quickly. So we need to lean into our community and be there for one another. One of the solutions to burnout is being in it together and supporting one another.
  • We can't have environmental justice without social justice.
  • It’s important to keep tipping points in mind - as an activist you can feel like you’re screaming into the void and nothing’s changing. But eventually you hit a tipping point, and more and more people start to make changes. We’ve seen this with single use plastic bags, veganism and solar panels.
  • You can feel like you're not having any impact, but actually, the main way we make an impact is through affecting others. In isolation, nothing happens. But as we are social species, we learn from each other.
  • We know we need systemic institutional change, but how can individuals show up in a way that makes a difference? For Clover, that has been a lesson in community. If we look at major cultural shifts throughout history - such as the suffragettes or the civil rights movement, the Stonewall uprising, or more recently the youth strikes for climate - they've happened because of people power.
  • It’s much more inspiring to think about how we create communities that are grounded in love and connectedness and reimagine what the world could look like.
  • Hope is a verb - it’s something that you exercise and practice.
  • It’s important to question the prevailing norms. Our current systems have been designed, which means they can be redesigned, and redesigned again. They need to adapt and evolve as we adapt and evolve. There are bigger systems in play, and we should be questioning why the world is the way it is, and how we can envision a better and brighter one that actually works for everyone.

If you’d like to catch up on the recorded session, follow this link.

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