In June, during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests and just before the daily cases of COVID-19 hit new record-breaking numbers, I issued a survey to take the pulse of sustainability people: How are the events of 2020 affecting employment, hours, pay, promotion opportunities and budgets? I also asked respondents how they are coping with everything, and how the events of the day have changed the way they think about their work.
Of the 65 people who responded, 32 percent were at the vice president level, 38 percent were at the director level and 38 percent were at the manager level. Most work for companies with revenues of $50 million or above. Industry representation was across the board, with public sector and professional services well represented.
Here’s what I learned.
Many people are worried about their jobs
Since February, the U.S. jobless rate has risen by 7.6 percentage points, and as of June, 17.8 million Americans were unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Of the people who responded to our survey, 95 percent said they are currently employed, but nearly half said they were concerned about losing their jobs, and about 13 percent said they had experienced a furlough or job loss.
Of those who were able to keep their jobs, nearly half said they experienced a pay cut, and more than a quarter said they had a reduction in hours (although we did not ask if hours changes were voluntary — for instance, due to school closures).
Sustainability teams have experienced job loss, pay and budget cuts, and more
The survey respondents also answered the same question more generally with regard to sustainability staff at their company. They noted high rates of furloughs (34 percent), job loss (29 percent) and hours reduction (32 percent).
Almost half of respondents reported that their company’s sustainability teams had experienced pay cuts. More than 60 percent of respondents said their organization had implemented a hiring freeze, and three-quarters of respondents said their company had experienced budget cuts. However, only 46 percent of respondents said budget cuts happened in their sustainability programs.
How people are coping with changes
Sustainability team members have had to find different ways to cope with cutbacks and job losses, both professionally and on a personal level.
When it comes to work, some respondents — particularly working parents with kids at home due to school closures — said they have had to lower their ambition in terms of how much they could get done. Some have focused on ways to improve efficiencies and save their company money. Others said not much had changed except for the absence of work travel.
Many respondents talked about the need to take care of their teams through flexible schedules, video calls to help isolated colleagues feel less alone and the creative use of internal resources. One respondent said their team took a collective pay cut to preserve jobs.
Some respondents said they are investing in new skills and preparing for the possibility that they may need to find another job or take on new roles. As one person put it: "I have cross-trained in other areas so that when we open back up, I can help out where needed."
Those answering the survey also reflected on how the pandemic has affected their personal lives. Poor mental health was a long-brewing crisis even before COVID-19, when one in five American adults experienced mental illness, costing the U.S. economy nearly $500 billion in care, lost earnings and insurance. The pandemic has made this crisis worse: According to a survey in March and another in June, nearly half of Americans experienced symptoms of mental illness; women, Black and Latinx people were more likely to experience those symptoms.
The people we surveyed said they were taking time for self-care, including more sleep, exercise, mental health treatment and time with family.
One respondent said they were embracing resilience: "Focus on issues of greatest importance now and on the horizon — e.g., doubling down on food insecurity and shifting approach to reducing single-use disposables." Another sounded more despondent: "Some days I just cry. Circumstances change every day. People’s nerves are frayed. Overwhelmed. Exhausted. Unknown how long before work stabilizes again." Yet another individual said their clients were becoming more interested in well-being and human health.
How the events of 2020 are changing perspectives on sustainability work
We asked the survey respondents to reflect on how COVID-19 and the protests around racial injustice have changed the way they think about the work they do, and how these events might change their work in the future. By and large, respondents said 2020 has changed their perspectives on work, both in terms of the substance of what they do and how they do it.
Many people said that the pandemic and racial injustice highlighted just how important sustainability work continues to be.
As one respondent aptly put it: "COVID has shown how vulnerable our society is to unexpected change." Another individual said the effects of the pandemic will pale in comparison to the effects of climate change: "The importance of the work I do is now more apparent than ever."
Another reflected on how the intersection of issues has "widened the lens of how to think about sustainability." A different respondent noted: "I’ve thought about how to further integrate inclusion and diversity with sustainability initiative and what things the sustainability team can do to fight racism and promote equality." Yet another respondent said the events have "widened conflicts and divides on my team."
Survey respondents also commented about how the pandemic in particular will change how their work is done, with much more remote work and work-from home and much less travel. One expressed anxiety about continuing work in factories: "The travel, flying, being around hundreds or thousands of workers in facilities."
Looking ahead, many people believe remote work is here to stay, and that other forms of flexible work also may be embraced. Several respondents talked about how new materiality issues may arise, including racial justice, employee well-being and health. One person noted that the events of 2020 will underscore the importance of traceability, transparency and environmental justice in the future.
The observation of another respondent captured the tension between anxiety about job security and the importance of sustainability for the future of the world: "While sustainability can be deemed ‘non-essential’ in a crisis, forward-looking companies use it to be resilient and prepare for what the future brings."
I’m here for those forward-looking companies, and I hope you are, too.