Climate anxious? How taking action at work can help your mental health

Aligning your career to your ethics could have huge mental health benefits. Here's how.

James Shackell
March 2, 2022
A person looking out over the sea at dawn

Whether you work for a fossil-fuel loving bank or energy firm, a car manufacturer or a telco company – aligning your career to your climate ethics could have huge mental health benefits, says University of Melbourne Associate Professor Dr. Grant Blashki.

Does where we work affect how we feel? What happens when our ethics conflict with our job description? According to climate anxiety specialist Dr. Grant Blashki, author of Climate, Health and Courage, when our values and our work are out of sync, something has to give, and that something is often our mental health.

"People who work in a place that aligns with their values, that they feel good about, and that’s contributing in a positive way to the future, they will feel better about their mental health," says Dr. Blashki. "They’ll feel less conflicted."

This conflict – the battle between how we feel and how we act – is known to psychologists as 'cognitive dissonance'. It’s what happens when your external actions contradict your internal values.

This clash is usually uncomfortable. It tends to manifest as a low-grade existential background pain, an uneasiness, which can feel more acute at certain times (e.g. watching catastrophic, real-world climate impacts on TV and feeling helpless in the face of them).

"Not every job is going to be exactly in alignment with your values, there’s no perfect job," says Dr. Blashki. “But if we can get to where our daily behaviours are aligning with our beliefs, it’s a much less stressful way to live."

How to harness your climate anxiety for good

Most people get around cognitive dissonance by changing one of the variables: either how they feel, or how they act. And we’re already seeing this with employees. According to recent surveys, 71 per cent of Gen Z workers and 52 per cent of Millennials said they wouldn’t work for a business that didn’t take action on climate change. Almost half of Australians (48 per cent) felt the same way. Studies show that we’re three times more worried about climate change than COVID, and all that worry takes a mental toll.

"Most people, especially young people, want a strong sense of alignment with their values and their work," Dr. Blashki says. "COVID has amplified that, too. Even the fact that we’re physically working from home now, there’s less sense of a split identity. Before, you could go to work, make money, and then live your life according to your values. Now people feel like their worlds have merged."

"Every year when I teach my climate change course, I look at the graphs and think, bloody hell, are those things real? It’s an incredibly stressful problem. And logically, if you’ve got that tension between your values and your work, that will increase your level of stress."

So what can we do about climate anxiety and cognitive dissonance? Is there a way to reconcile where you work with how you feel? To switch off the background pain? The good news is that there’s plenty that employees can do to feel less anxious, and less conflicted. The first step is simply taking action. If you can’t change companies, you can at least change your company.

"First of all, find a little piece of the puzzle that you can contribute to, because otherwise people tend to feel overwhelmed and powerless," Dr. Blashki says. "Find an area that fits your skills, your experience, share you concerns with like-minded people, and never feel like it’s all on you."

How to take climate action at work

Psychologists have found that even small actions can go a long way to managing climate anxiety and boosting your mental health. It’s all about taking back that feeling of control.

For employees, this could be forming a workplace green action group, writing an email to senior stakeholders, organising your workplace recycling program, or pushing your company to switch to renewable energy (in terms of pure climate impact, that’s the holy grail). 

Even finding a like-minded group of people at work, or joining an online climate community, can have huge mental health benefits. Part of climate anxiety is a feeling of helplessness, and we tend to feel less helpless when we’re not alone. 

Dr. Blashki says we can divide coping strategies into three broad groups:

1.     Problem-focused coping (taking direct action on climate change at work)

2.     Emotion-focused coping (finding techniques to deal with stress)

3.     Meaning-focused coping (changing the way you think about the problem).  

That third one, meaning-focused coping, is particularly relevant to eco-anxiety, because climate change can’t be solved overnight. It requires active involvement over a long period of time. If your workplace and your values don’t align, you can either change workplaces, or change the way you think.

"Every year when I teach my climate change course, I look at the graphs and think, bloody hell, are those things real?" Dr. Blashki says. "It’s an incredibly stressful problem. And logically, if you’ve got that tension between your values and your work, that will increase your level of stress."

Want to push for change in your workplace? We’ve got all the resources you need right here.

Image by GRAY via Unsplash.

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