The state of burnout – the growing people problem

February 2, 2024
4 min read

Preventing & Recovering from Burnout in Sustainability Series - Part 1

Here at The Now Work, we’ve seen time and time again how burnout has been affecting sustainability professionals and their ability to create the impact that the world so badly needs. That’s why we’re on a mission to create a future of work that enables more access, more humanity, more flexibility and more innovation.

Last week we held an online workshop with Colwyn Elder - a deep-dive into how to prevent and recover from burnout in sustainability.

In this three part recap series, we’ll go over: what burnout is and why it may be particularly relevant for sustainability professionals; how to identify whether you have burnout and what you can do about it; and how to shift work cultures to prevent burnout.

Defining burnout

The term ‘burnout’ was first coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1975, who described it as emotional exhaustion, loss of empathy, depersonalisation and a feeling of helplessness (Agombar, 2021).  

Interestingly, burnout was traditionally examined in the context of human services like healthcare, social work, psychotherapy and teaching - exhaustion was seen to occur as a result of the emotional demands of such jobs.

Covid 19 brought burnout to the forefront of public consciousness - notably in relation to those health professionals and care workers at the frontline of the pandemic, but also as a direct result of so many people having to work from home, blurring the boundaries between work and home life. Families were suddenly responsible for homeschooling children on top of their professional workload. Young people found themselves overworking as other activities became curtailed due to social distancing, and many people encountered overwork and stress due to financial and job security concerns.

It’s also worth noting that the burnout gender gap has more than doubled since 2019, indicating that women are often still bearing the brunt of the ‘double burden’.

The burnout experience is often misunderstood, misconstrued and misdiagnosed. Signals can take many different forms and symptoms can present in many different ways. It is often confused with stress or dismissed entirely, and as with mental health conditions, there is often a stigma suggesting that a person is unable to ‘cope’, which in turn can put further pressure on the individual and lead to feelings of guilt or inadequacy.

How prevalent is it?

Recent surveys from the UK and the US tell us:

  • 42% of the UK’s workforce is reporting burnout
  • 91% of UK adults experienced high or extreme levels of stress at some point in the past year.
  • 1 in 5 adults in the UK needed to take time off work due to poor mental health caused by pressure or stress in the past year 
  • 77% of respondents to a survey by Deloitte USA said they had experienced burnout in their current job

How does it relate to the sustainability community?

Not unlike care workers, those who work in sustainability often hold a deep personal connection to the work they’re doing. The scale and complexity of the environmental and social issues we face are huge, not to mention the impact that small teams, tight budgets, negative news cycles, bureaucracy and more have on worker motivation.

It’s not unusual to feel that your contribution is meaningless or your work is futile, which can lead us to working even harder, so it’s unsurprising that we are likely to become mentally and emotionally drained.

However, systemic change requires us to be the best versions of ourselves. As Hannah Phang said in a recent article for Vogue Business:

“If we are constantly burnt out, we can only create survival based solutions. Creating space for sustainability professionals will help them create more impactful solutions.”

It’s clear that current work dynamics are having an increasingly negative effect on employees - so stay tuned for part two of this series where we’ll discuss the signs of burnout to look out for and how to better support yourself going forward.

You can watch a video recording of the full workshop here.

Colwyn Elder is a veteran sustainability strategist and yoga specialist. Having run two careers as parallel tracks for over 20 years, Colwyn is increasingly looking to the intersection of sustainability and wellbeing, both from an individual and a collective perspective, as given the great entanglement between human health and the health of the planet, the correlations are many and meaningful.

About The Now Work
The Now Work is a flexible talent platform for sustainability, matching world-changing people to world-changing work. In the wake of COVID-19 and the Great Resignation, we saw a huge shift in how people want to work, and we feel passionate about creating a future for work that is fit for life. If you’re a brand looking to curate specific expertise or bespoke teams to help you deliver your vision; a freelancer looking for opportunities to work with brands who take sustainability seriously; or you would like to explore ways to better prepare for the future of work at your organisation - register your interest on our website or email us at

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