Sustainability

Language and climate resilience: how to empower your staff, not depress them

Workplaces must start making space for the emotions related to climate change.

Article by
Bron Willis
Asian colleague embracing supporting caucasian woman reading bad news in email, teammate comforting stressed frustrated female coworker upset by dismissal, helping to solve problem online in office

Last month saw some of the most challenging headlines for people concerned about climate.

In a world already flooded with bad news, headlines from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made for difficult reading. The report was clear: immediate, decisive action is required to stop our planet becoming uninhabitable. Yet for many of those already engaged with climate, being informed can trigger fear, frustration and depression – and none of these emotions are conducive to decisive action. 

So how can you find a workplace language that strikes the right balance between being informed and being overwhelmed? Sally Gillespie is a former psychotherapist working with Psychology for a Safe Climate, a Melbourne not-for-profit working to foster emotional engagement with climate change. Gillespie encourages workplaces to start by making space for the emotions related to climate change and allowing a corporate language and culture to develop around these emotions. 

“It is important to acknowledge the emotional challenge of climate engagement and to share personal stories that provide inspirations for commitment and action. This helps diminish feelings of isolation, normalises the emotional terrain of climate engagement and invites participation in collaborative actions.

“Research shows that being able to acknowledge and express the emotional effects of climate awareness and engagement helps build emotional resilience and creative responses."

“Research shows that being able to acknowledge and express the emotional effects of climate awareness and engagement helps build emotional resilience and creative responses. Setting aside time and space for staff to reflect on the IPCC report in an open and safe discussion is an important basis for initiating projects.” 

Sally emphasises the importance of considering your audience and choosing your language according to their needs. 

Find out what your team knows already 

“Climate campaigners, for instance, are generally familiar with the science informing the IPCC report, so many of them are experienced with living with the ebb and flow of emotions that accompanies knowledge of climate science,” says Sally. 

Are your staff seasoned climate campaigners, who are already taking the action the report identifies as necessary? If so, they may need their distress to be acknowledged and given space. Gillespie encourages highly informed and engaged people like these, to monitor their media exposure, practice mindfulness and self-compassion, and take time out. 

Or perhaps your staff are newer to the messages of the IPCC report, which captured such broad media coverage that it brought climate change to the attention of some who may be less engaged with it. 

“For those who are not already highly engaged and informed, we stress the importance of finding meaningful action that is well aligned with their skillset and interests. We also underline the message of the latest IPCC report, which is that every action that contributes to a lowering of greenhouse gases, counts.” 

Getting to know how your team already engages with climate science is therefore one of the first steps in creating a solutions-focused workplace climate culture. Are your employees or fellow leaders already on high alert? Or do they need to be better informed? 

Urgent language: “the house is on fire” 

In January 2019, Swedish teenager and climate activist Greta Thunberg (credited with starting the global youth climate strike movement) told the World Economic Forum that she wanted them to panic. 

“I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act… I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.” 

The speech, delivered with fiery passion by a 16-year old high school student to a roomful of high-profile policy makers, gained global attention. It was emotive, evocative and highly charged. It was also effective in sparking climate strikes in over 1664 cities across 125 countries and gaining the attention of media outlets across the globe. 

Thunberg’s choice of language was powerful because of the clear goal it had: to capture the attention of an audience whose action in response to climate change she considered grossly inadequate. It’s this ambivalent or denialist audience that Sally Gillespie argues urgent language is appropriate for. 

“Given there is a widespread denial and disavowal of the seriousness of the climate situation, alarms do need to be sounded clearly and consistently to the general public,” says Gillespie. 

“We need to be mindful that sounding the alarm continually to people who are already highly alert to the danger is not helpful.” 

But is alarmist language always the best way to elicit action? It depends, argues Gillespie. 

“We need to be mindful that sounding the alarm continually to people who are already highly alert to the danger is not helpful.” 

Optimistic language: “we can choose our impact” 

At the other end of both the age and language spectrum is Jane Goodall, 86-year-old primatologist and climate action leader. As a regular speaker at events around the world, Goodall is known for her optimism and is famous for priming her audiences with a desire to act.  

“Every single individual makes an impact every single day and we can choose what sort of impact we make.”

“Every single individual makes an impact every single day and we can choose what sort of impact we make,” says Goodall. 

It’s the pairing of hope with a call-to-action that makes Goodall’s message so powerful – and so transferrable to workplace culture and language. Goodall argues that action is the only remedy for the overwhelm or depression that some of your staff may be feeling about climate change. 

“If you do something, if you take action, do your best to make a difference, you will move out of depression.” 

Gillespie agrees optimistic language like this is another useful tool when used in the right way. 

"The IPCC uses both urgent and optimistic messaging in its report, which is consistent with the science. Both kinds of language are relevant to what we need to know and how we need to act.” 

“We need a full spectrum of expression on how we talk about climate consistent with the realities of climate crisis. The IPCC uses both urgent and optimistic messaging in its report, which is consistent with the science. Both kinds of language are relevant to what we need to know and how we need to act.” 

It’s helpful to remember that language should support action: whether discussions about climate and your organisation’s influence on it is coming from a senior policy level, or from groundswell by concerned staff, solutions-focused language must be supported by action. 

“The most important action that companies and organisations can take to help their staff is to step up their commitment to climate action in inclusive ways that involve all staff,” says Gillespie.

“People feel supported and empowered when they are involved in a collective action that is committed and meaningful.” 

Gillespie’s top tips

Don’t

- use generalised fatalistic and disempowered narratives

- use polarising ‘us and them’ language

- harangue, lecture or bombard with statistics.

Do

- share feelings and perspectives to create greater empathy and understanding. This invites conversations and is the most effective communication style.  

Sally Gillespie is the author of Climate Crisis and Consciousness: Reimagining our world and ourselves (Routledge 2020)

Copyright © 2021 WorkForClimate