Combating burnout in sustainability work

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Combating burnout in sustainability work

Elissa Goldenberg
Elissa Goldenberg spent more than a decade working in the social impact field before starting her own firm, EG Coaching & Consulting, helping mission-driven individuals, teams and organizations maximize their well-being and their impact.

In January 2019, Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Petersen wrote a viral essay describing millennials as the "burnout generation." Five months later, the World Health Organization (WHO) broadened burnout beyond 20- and 30-somethings, calling it a new "occupational phenomenon."

Defined by WHO as "chronic workplace stress," burnout affects our mental well-being as well as our productivity at work, which means there’s a real cost to business. According to a 2018 Lancet Commission report (PDF), mental health disorders — including those associated with burnout, such as stress and mental exhaustion — could cost the global economy up to $16 trillion between 2010 and 2030.

These discussions have helped elevate the issue of burnout at work, where we spend most of our time. But how does this issue play out in the field of sustainability? How can organizations create a sustainable culture of well-being to ensure organizational impact and keep employees happy, healthy and engaged at work and in their lives?

I discussed these questions with Elissa Goldenberg, who spent more than a decade working in the social impact field before starting her own firm, EG Coaching & Consulting, helping mission-driven individuals, teams and organizations maximize their well-being and their impact.

Ellen Weinreb: EG Coaching & Consulting focuses on mission-driven people and organizations. Why did you feel it was important to address well-being in this field?

Elissa Goldenberg: I experienced firsthand the challenges of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and positive mindset while working for a mission I cared about deeply, and I discovered that people around me were struggling, too — with stress management, fatigue, a fading sense of fulfillment, showing up for friends and loved ones, and even disillusionment with the efficacy of their organization’s mission.

I started to realize that while mission-driven organizations do a great job fueling people’s sense of purpose, they aren’t always intentional about how the mission and values show up in their culture, policies, performance-management systems and employee benefits. I help these organizations continue doing meaningful work while sustaining their people’s health and well-being. 

Weinreb: What is burnout, and why does it matter?

Goldenberg: Burnout is different for everyone, but common symptoms include stress, chronic fatigue, feelings of overwhelm, cynicism or a general lack of satisfaction from achievements. It affects quality of life and work performance. For some, it can feel like their entire sense of self — their identity — is being challenged.

Research indicates burnout is becoming a workplace epidemic, affecting not just individuals but entire teams. This poses significant risks to the bottom line due to higher healthcare costs, increased absenteeism and turnover, and lower productivity. Burnout can also stifle collaboration, creativity and innovation.

Weinreb: What are some of the risks in the sustainability field that could lead to burnout?

Goldenberg: Social impact professionals experience challenges common in fast-paced, high-intensity work environments: frequent and difficult travel, heavy workloads and long hours, and urgent deadlines. There are also unique things that can make sustainability people more vulnerable to burnout: Most of us are motivated by deeply held values and beliefs, and this emotional attachment to our work can lead to an over-willingness to focus on the mission at the expense of our own needs. Many social impact professionals engage directly with people in vulnerable conditions, which takes an emotional toll. Finally, the sheer size and complexity of the global challenges we’re working on can feel overwhelming.

Weinreb: How can managers and employers help prevent burnout?

Goldenberg: Organizations need to create a safe space for their employees to discuss their challenges and seek the support they need to flourish. 

Managers can help their team regulate their physical, mental and emotional energy. Offer flexible work options, so people can build in time for renewal. Encourage recovery days after work trips. Build in structured time and provide a safe space for people to process their emotions and discuss their challenges through mentor programs, counseling or team discussions. Create peer support systems. And celebrate intermediate milestones to help people stay connected to meaningful progress on long-term challenges.

Leaders should also regularly assess culture and its alignment with the organization’s mission. Discuss task urgency and prioritization, and evaluate meeting culture to ensure people have time for strategic tasks that require uninterrupted focus. Also, make sure employees have space for creativity and big-picture thinking.

Weinreb: What’s your take on current strategies to support employee well-being and mental health?

Goldenberg: A lot of wellness programs are either too shallow or too narrow. Companies need to move beyond benefits and perks and take a critical look at their culture to understand how overt practices and unspoken rules drive unhealthy conditions. They also need to recognize that every individual has unique needs. Some people find it difficult to cope with stress, while others have underlying mental health conditions that may be exacerbated in certain work cultures.

Weinreb: What’s the one thing sustainability organizations and teams can do to cultivate an ongoing culture of well-being?

Goldenberg: Don’t take your purpose or mission for granted. Too often, there’s the mindset that the mission is enough to keep people motivated. Instead, leaders can proactively build cultures that are authentic in their mission and values, encourage people to bring their full self to work, and foster a safe and supportive environment so the organization — and its people — will thrive.

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