Climate anxiety is causing cognitive exhaustion in the workplace

Cara de Lange, founder of Softer Success explains why burnt-out people burn out the planet

We are living in a fear-based world, where burnout and trauma are on the rise. Recent research by Sheffield University has revealed that a new trauma-infused burnout is arising, and Imperial College London has found eco-anxiety is on the rise.

Burnout is defined by the World Health Organization as chronic work-related stress that has not been properly managed. But, perhaps more insidiously, research from the Paris Brain Institute and Oxford University found that working too hard can cause your brain cells to die. Ironically, for some, the more you work, the less productive and skilled you may become. We may be literally killing our brain cells thanks to our long hours and the ongoing daily stress of our lives.  According to the World Health Organization, the global cost of burnout is estimated to be more than $300 billion per year.

But how does this impact our climate? Living in fear and stress with high cortisol levels depletes our energy levels.  In fact, a research paper by Imperial College London found that climate anxiety is causing problems such as cognitive exhaustion in the workplace.  It also found that 59 per cent of young people aged 16-25 (our future leaders) are extremely worried about climate change, and more than half report feeling sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty with regards to the climate crisis. This kind of anxiety can cause a form of paralysis, blocking our energy and creativity. Without the right energy levels, how will we be able to take appropriate climate action in the way we need to?

We are stuck in survival mode and yet we need to get to a point where we are thriving. Burnt out people are burning out the planet because when we are in such a state, we are only focusing on our immediate needs. Burnout can cause cognitive complaints such as loss of focus or even memory loss and lack of concentration, so we may find we forget to recycle for example throw plastic in the regular bin or not pay attention to where we throw our rubbish.

We may also be too tired to look at alternative travel options and take our car instead of walking or bus. We may not have energy or the motivation to check whether products are sustainable or eco-friendly. When burnt out people get home, they might order takeaway, or shop impulsively  which are all bad for the planet. When they are not suffering from burnout, they’re more intentional with their lifestyle. So they’ll make an effort to cook healthily or do that bit of recycling.

As humans, we need to be thriving so that we can take the right steps forward. And that means helping people to be healthy and well and thriving in the workplace so they are able to take climate action. It means addressing burnout and eco-anxiety head on. We need to rewire our brains and our organisations’ ‘neural pathways’ to mitigate burnout and workplace toxicity.

But while solving burnout in the workplace is a huge priority, we need to also zoom out to the wider lens that shows us that greed and exploitation are ever present all around us. We are not only burning out our people, but we are also burning out our planet. The systems that cause burnout are the same systems we use to abuse the planet such as exploitation, greed, power, short-termism, dehumanisation and overwork. So it is crucial that we radically change the way we think, live and work to create a better future for our children and the world they’ll live in.

People in their power, in their energy and flow can contribute to a better community, better parents, better friends, better environment. Burnt out people burn out the planet too.  We need to get to the root cause of toxicity in the workplace, and we need to do this scientifically, identifying and tackling moral injury, eco anxiety and burnout head on.

Ahead of COP27, the WHO issued a grim reminder of the need to put both physical and mental health front and centre in the climate change negotiations. Here are three things organisations can do to transform the way they work to start mitigating burnout risks and help people regain their energy:

  1. Wellbeing: We need to place employee wellbeing at the core of how we work. A recent report by King’s College London highlights that when wellbeing is included as a business goal, it prevents burnout and employees are happier and more sustainably productive.
  2. Mission: Companies need to commit to looking after their employees to the highest level by providing ongoing, scientifically backed training to prevent burnout, deal with fear and rewire their brains to deal with uncertainty. Regular implementation of anti-burnout strategies for sustainable wellbeing.
  3. Accountability and measurability: Objective accountability and measurability. Regularly scientifically measuring and assessing the risk of burnout is necessary to ensure that burnout prevention strategies are working.
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