When we practise sustainability in our daily lives, it impacts positively on our own wellbeing as well as the planet’s – meaning that personal wellbeing and environmental sustainability need not be mutually exclusive goals. By exploring these impacts, and what organisations can do to promote employee wellbeing and sustainability, we can pave the way for a hopeful road forward.
Recent academic research is beginning to document acute and chronic mental health issues related to concerns about climate change (terms like “eco-anxiety” have been coined), including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. The consequences of these issues are likely to compound an already stretched mental health system, making them an issue for more and more individuals, as well as their communities and their workplaces. Now, more than ever – for a variety of reasons – neither mental health nor sustainability in the workplace can be ignored.
What’s more, in a tight labour market, where securing good talent is a challenge for many employers, sustainable environmental practices can be important for talent attraction and retention, especially for the emerging generation of young workers. The Network for Business Sustainability lists three key reasons why those looking for a job prefer companies that care about environmental sustainability:
- It increases the sense of employee pride in their work
- It suggests that the company cares about wider issues than just profit, including the wellbeing of its employees
- It connects organisational values to employees’ personal values.
Surveys such as the Cone Communications Millennial CSR study indicate that 62% of millennials are even willing to take a pay cut to work for a socially and environmentally responsible company. So it would seem that it’s in the best interest of not only employees but also employers, to shift their attention to how we care about the planet.
Business leaders are increasingly conscious of the way their workplaces are being set up and their obligation to prevent negative impacts on people’s health and wellbeing, as well as negative impacts on the environment. Below we provide some suggestions for ways in which workplaces can tackle both.
What can organisations do to promote wellbeing while being sustainable?
Technology creates extra possibilities for eco-friendly solutions in the workplace. In recent years, businesses have been trying to adopt more sustainable methods of energy consumption such as replacing company fleets with electric vehicles, relying on alternate energy sources (e.g. solar power), and reducing paper wastage by encouraging employees to think before they print. Many businesses have also pledged to make the shift towards being completely carbon-neutral, or even carbon-negative, although how the pledges translate into action worldwide is yet to be seen. Being more sustainable has also been shown to positively impact on how their employees feel about their workplace, therefore improving engagement.
In a world where COVID-19 keeps us on our toes, many companies have shifted towards remote working as a rule rather than an exception. The benefit? Businesses offer flexibility, and therefore work-life balance, to their employees while helping the environment by reducing harmful gases released in the atmosphere by daily commutes. In 2019, the Washington Post highlighted that the amount of time Americans spent in their car was at a record high, with an average of nine whole days spent on the road annually per person – much of which was spent commuting to and from work. With more cars off the road and offices empty, remote working creates a number of sustainable benefits for the environment – improved air quality, fewer single-use plastics, reduced power consumption in big offices, and less paper printing. Importantly, flexible working can potentially also positively influence people’s wellbeing, as well as reducing gender inequities, so long as appropriate management and technology support systems are in place. With “no commute” highlighted as one of the top benefits of working from home for employees around the world, organisations may want to formalise flexible working for the sake of the planet and their people.
Build connection through volunteering. While the absence of a commute is a benefit for employees working from home, isolation can be the biggest challenge. With the businesses we consult to, one way that Umbrella has seen other organisations meet this challenge is to actively bring teams together at regular intervals (COVID restrictions permitting). Given that social connection is so important to our wellbeing, workplaces have the chance to be creative with what this looks like. With many businesses offering employees paid time off to volunteer, they could also consider bringing teams together to volunteer for the environment (e.g. planting trees or cleaning up beaches or parks). Helping employees to connect, giving them time in nature, and furthering sustainability initiatives in the local community offer meaning and purpose, promote wellbeing and strengthen teams – a win-win-win for all involved.
Redefine the work week. In a number of high-profile trials around the world, more and more organisations are daring to challenge the 40-hour week. In New Zealand, for example, Perpetual Guardian’s trial of the four-day-week for its employees (without reducing pay) was a resounding success – with improvements in productivity alongside lower stress, greater work-life balance, and higher wellbeing reported by participants. In a recent study reported in The Guardian, a nationwide shift to four-day weeks are projected to help governments to meet their climate targets by reducing transport emissions and energy use in the office. Employees would also enjoy an extra day off from work, allowing them to engage in low-carbon activities that ultimately benefit their wellbeing like exercising, spending time in nature, or contributing to their communities.
Promote healthy habits at work. At the individual level, another great way of caring for the planet is through ditching the car for walking, running or cycling to work. Our team at Umbrella have recently highlighted the positive effects that exercise has on the brain. By switching up our routine in this way, exercise increases the flow of the neurotransmitters in our brain that have been linked to better memory retention, focus and feeling good. This means that our performance and productivity may be better at work, we are more creative, we tend to make fewer mistakes, and we build stronger work relationships. In order to reap these benefits for employees, the business and the planet, organisations can prioritise the health of their people by taking steps to incentivise healthy habits. Examples of how this can be done include providing showers at work, offering employees psycho-education on the science of behaviour change (to help them persist beyond the first few weeks of a new exercise plan, when it gets harder to stay motivated), and encouraging conversations about health and wellbeing as part of employee KPIs.
Improving the wellbeing of our people and our planet requires bold and innovative solutions. Given that so many of these solutions lie in the hands of organisations, not just the individuals that work for them, we encourage employers to think about the benefits they stand to gain from prioritising the wellbeing of their people, while taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint. These two goals can, and indeed must, be viewed in tandem for us to make meaningful change.