Last reviewed 30 October 2020

Threats to our mental health from the climate crisis and the pandemic are not mutually exclusive. So, what can be done? Laura King explores the issue.

Not so long ago, before the pandemic struck, momentum for climate action seemed unstoppable. The pressure for governments and businesses to act more sustainably was building, and the climate crisis seemed impossible to ignore.

However, as well as a very real threat to our environment, the climate emergency was also having a growing impact on our mental wellbeing. Dubbed eco-anxiety, or climate anxiety, mental health professionals were reporting a growing trend of people experiencing worry about climate change, ecological disasters, and the ongoing risks to the natural world.

It should be noted that eco-anxiety is not a recognised mental health condition, and is considered a healthy reaction to the current situation. As such, there are no official statistics of how prevalent it is. However, surveys of the general population do provide some us with some clues. For example, a poll conducted in late 2019 on behalf of the American Psychological Association (APA) found that nearly half of people aged between 18–34 said that stress about climate change was affecting their lives, with more than two-thirds of adults (68%) saying that they have at least a little “eco-anxiety” (defined as any anxiety or worry about climate change and its effects).

A YouGov survey in 2019 showed that concern is also high in the UK. A quarter of those surveyed (27%) thought that the environment was the third top issue facing the country (behind Brexit and health), up from 18% in 2018.

Eco-anxiety and Covid-19

In many ways, the pandemic has shifted our attention. However, this too has brought with it additional concerns, and, as a country, our anxiety levels are rising.

The Office of National Statistics has reported that although national levels of anxiety have improved since the first shock of lockdown in March, we are generally still more worried than at the beginning of the year. Similarly, a study by mental health charity, TalkOut, in September 2020 found that 35% of the 1500 workers polled, reported having worse mental health now compared to pre-pandemic.

For many, the dual stresses of a health crisis on top of an environmental one will heighten emotions, making the issue of tackling mental wellbeing more important than ever.

Why tackle eco-anxiety now?

A 2017 report by APA stated that “the psychological responses to climate change, such as conflict avoidance, fatalism, fear, helplessness, and resignation are growing.” And while these responses are a very appropriate reaction to an external threat, the report also warned that “these responses are keeping us from properly addressing the core causes of and solutions for our changing climate”.

Although we are still in the middle of a global health crisis, businesses are nonetheless being urged to continue to improve their environmental credentials. In the same vein, businesses must also not ignore the issue of eco-anxiety.

As the APA report suggests, addressing eco-anxiety also means tackling our “freeze” response, breaking down barriers to action and enabling businesses to build momentum, crucial support, and enthusiasm for corporate, as well as individual efforts in addressing climate change.

Tackling anxiety

Fortunately, many of the solutions for climate anxiety will also help improve overall mental wellbeing, helping staff through the current situation as well as anything the future holds.

The NHS recommends five tips for improving mental wellbeing, many of which can be encouraged by workplaces.

Connect with other people

Connecting with other people not only helps individuals when faced with difficult times, it also builds a sense of self-worth. Environmental champion groups or environmental networks are one way to allow people to discuss ideas, develop collaborations and build camaraderie; from a Covid-19 point-of-view, non-compulsory Zoom coffee mornings, or support groups for people in certain situations might help build much-needed meaningful connection.

Be physically active

Exercise has been shown to reduce stress, as well as have a positive impact on mental health. Even better, many of the options for getting active such as cycling or walking can benefit the environment. There might not be a high uptake for green commuting during the pandemic, but organisations can still use the same resources to encourage staff to stay active by cycling and walking in their local areas.

Learn new skills

A survey of 2000 UK employees in August 2020 by Censuswide for Unily found that 63% would like to learn green skills in order to be more valuable to their organisation. Offering options for staff to learn more about sustainability in their workplace, what they can do to reduce their environmental footprint, as well as any training on becoming more environmentally literate could be a good way to enable positive change. The pandemic might also have altered how people work. Use this as an opportunity to upskill staff.

Give to others

Staff volunteering programmes can help build self-confidence, and boost morale. These can be environmentally-focussed, such as a socially-distanced litter pick, or more in line with the community’s needs during the pandemic, like donating food to vulnerable adults or to children in need over school holidays. As well as within the community, there might also be options within the organisation as well, for example by organising fundraising for a good cause.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is about paying attention in the present moment. It can help make us more aware of the world around us, as well as our own feelings. In doing so, mindful practices can help us deal with our thoughts in a more productive way. Many larger companies, such as Google, have integrated mindful training into their organisation, but mindfulness does not need to be part of a formal programme. Simple activities such as breathing exercises can make a huge difference.

Lastly, it is also useful that those with anxiety can find ways of taking action and importantly can take actions that are in line with their values. When feeling overwhelmed, it can be hard to know where to start, so offering suggestions and guidance can help people make a difference in ways that are meaningful to them.

As well as providing general resources, it might be worth considering what changes staff are currently going through. For example, staff working from home might be worried about increased costs as winter approaches. Organisations can offer a variety of ways to improve anxiety, such as providing resources that staff can use to take action, opportunities to connect with like-minded people, or helping staff to learn new skills. An example might include catering staff providing tips on how to turn last night’s leftovers into a tasty meal or information from building managers on how to approach energy efficiency.

Summary

Before the pandemic, accounts of eco-anxiety were rising. Although Covid-19 has shifted our attention temporarily, these concerns are unlikely to go away. With an overall decline in general mental wellbeing fuelled by the impact of Covid-19, the level of worry is likely to rise further.