Levels of profound concern about the state of our planet’s climate are rising to the point where distress is recognised as a condition – “eco anxiety”.
This state of mind impacts on all aspect of life, not least at work or studying. Also termed “climate anxiety”, it is affecting all age groups and especially those suffering severed environmental changes first-hand.
Young people across the world are reporting growing eco-anxiety. Force of Nature, a youth non-profit organisation advises that over 70% of young people feel hopeless in the face of the climate crisis and 56% believe humanity is doomed, while only 26% feel that they know how to contribute to solving the problem.
Strikingly, Force of Nature reports that 93% of employees say that acting on climate at work is important to their personal sense of motivation and wellbeing.
A 2020 survey of child psychiatrists in England highlighted that more than half (57%) are seeing children and young people distressed about the climate crisis. Eco anxiety is global in form as the largest and most international survey of climate anxiety in young people aged 16 to 25 indicates.
The study says that the emotional, cognitive, social, and functional burdens of climate change are “profoundly affecting huge numbers of these young people round the world.”
Crucially, it provides new insights into how young people’s feelings of betrayal and abandonment by governments and adults feed into their emotional states, with the perceived failures to respond adequately, fuelling feelings of “no future” and “humanity doomed.”
At the same time, a survey by the Global Future thinktank and the University of York indicates that concern about global warming is almost as common among older people as it is among young people. Overall, 78% of people reported some level of eco-anxiety regardless of age or class.
Workplace and employer responses
These figures are deeply disturbing and point to the fact that many people at work are suffering varying degrees of anxiety around climate change, causing personal distress and challenges to capability.
The question being asked now is whether employers have a duty and can help to relieve eco anxiety, so that staff can lead fulfilling lives inside and outside of the workplace.
Every business and organisation will need to address the complex issues and build robust frameworks that support employees, both now and in the future, not least because the younger people suffering eco anxiety now will stream into the workforce in the next few years.
Already, stress, depression and anxiety are the major causes of employee absence in the UK, with each person taking 21 days off on average each year, according to the Health and Safety Executive.
Quite apart from the appalling toll on wellbeing, there are significant economic costs. According to Deloitte, mental health issues among staff cost UK employers £42bn–£45bn each year. The World Health Organisation (WHO) goes even higher, estimating the cost at £70 billion annually.
While all this might seem quite bleak, there are effective and sustainable responses to the condition. A study published in Frontiers offers a rounded view of the new psychological condition. It suggests that the label “eco-anxiety” may be best understood as referring to a family of distinct, but related, ecological emotions.
The researchers suggest that a specific form – practical eco-anxiety – can be a valuable emotional response to threats like climate change. With the right support and frameworks, people can redirect the energies fuelling negative feelings into agents for change.
Common eco-anxiety symptoms can include:
- Obsessive thoughts about climate change
- Depression and anxiety
- Existential dread
- Anger or frustration (especially towards groups who don’t care about climate change)
- Panic attacks
- Fatalistic thinking
- Guilt or shame about carbon footprint or lack of effort
- Feelings of grief or sadness about irreversible damage to the environment or extinct species
- Post-traumatic stress from experiencing the effects of climate change.
Employers with the most effective wellbeing policies should be able to respond in the most appropriate ways to symptomatic changes among their staff.
A key element in wellbeing policies is to raise awareness. In the British Medical Journal, university researchers advise that one of the best routes to alleviating rising levels of climate anxiety is to increase optimism and hope by improving awareness.
Giving employees access to the most reliable information on climate mitigation and adaptation, as well a practical information on actions they can take, can help significantly to alleviate anxiety. Self-motivated research through trustworthy news sources is a powerful counter-balance against feelings of dread and hopelessness.
Companies could follow pioneering work by mental health charities. For example, sUStain is a climate anxiety project, which supports adults and young people. It’s organised by Norfolk & Waveney Mind in partnership with the University of East Anglia (UEA), the Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA), The Resilience Project and other partners.
It offers a range of support around eco-anxiety and climate grief, including:
- Awareness events to normalise concerns
- Monthly ‘Climate Cafe’ drop ins co-facilitated by students where feelings and thoughts can be shared.
- A 6-week programme based on mindfulness and elements of the Active Hope approach.
Practical steps, positive change
Giving employees the means, the power and the opportunity to make positive change by taking simple and practical steps to combat eco anxiety, such as reducing energy use, recycling, using less plastic, and conserving water – and feeling part of a wider group making effective changes – is an essential step.
As the Frontiers article indicates, while climate anxiety is often cripplingly intense, research shows that individuals can learn to manage potentially problematic feelings of anxiety. Simple reappraisal strategies such as learning to interpret eco anxiety as a helpful motivator, have been found to be an effective way to reshape terrors, fears and troubles.
A visible example is Greta Thunberg, who has experienced climate anxiety, and used it to propel herself into positive action. She says that it’s a natural response to what the world is going through now – a rational response to an intolerable situation. But she adds, “When you take action, you also get a sense of meaning that something is happening. If you want to get rid of that anxiety, you can take action against it.”