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Stressing about work or the planet? Don’t forget to sustain yourself

Sustainability work presents unique stressors. Coping requires focused action.

Person with their head in their hands and leaning over laptop with sun in their hands

Credit: Seasontime

Sustainability professionals — who make up much of the GreenBiz audience — pursue sustainability, resilience and long-term change. Positive results accrue in ebbs and flows through individual and collaborative efforts, influential institutions, improved goods and services, and planetary health.

While you are busy helping your employers, clients and communities, please don’t forget to manage your stress and strengthen your resilience. Bearing sustainability responsibilities can have high personal costs: exhaustion; burnout; illnesses; mistakes; and more. Chris Gaither writes a column for GreenBiz about coping with these challenges; I offer these thoughts in pursuit of the same self-sustainability mission.

What causes job stress?

A starting point for understanding and coping with stress is to recognize three classic stressors created by our need to meet other people’s expectations:

1. Role ambiguity is when you are not sure what people want from you or how to perform well enough to satisfy them.

2. Role overload means you face so many expectations that you can’t meet them all adequately because you don’t have enough time or the skills you need. 

3. Role conflict means being caught between incompatible expectations — your job and family both require your time and attention, or two bosses make contradictory requests, or your team wants you to supervise them in ways that differ from what your boss wants.

Articles and blogs describe eco-anxiety and the difficulties climate scientists face, knowing the dangers that await our planet. But I don't see studies of sustainability professionals' work-related stress or the strategies they use to cope.

Sustainability work presents unique stressors and coping options

Articles and blogs describe eco-anxiety and the difficulties climate scientists face, knowing the dangers that await our planet. But I don't see studies of sustainability professionals' work-related stress or the strategies they use to cope. To make up for that deficit, Kieran O’Connor and I (faculty members at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce) collected data from hundreds of respondents working to promote sustainability and climate action. To assess stress, we measured career (dis)satisfaction and two aspects of employee well-being: thriving and burning out. 

The results revealed, once again, job stress due to role ambiguity and role conflict (we didn’t assess overload). They also revealed unique specifics for sustainability professionals. Disagreements with work colleagues about climate change related to higher burnout, and high agreement related to higher career satisfaction and thriving. Differences with direct supervisors mattered most, but disagreements with senior leaders and coworkers were stressful, too.

Also related to burnout were bureaucratic obstacles, hassles and constraints. We did not assess organizational characteristics, but you can imagine cultures varying greatly as to sustainability’s importance — and the stress created for those who care strongly while their employers and clients do not. Furthermore, some units within companies and geographic locations care about sustainability more than others do, and short-term priorities frequently defeat or hinder longer-term sustainability goals. 

So what can you do to help yourself?

Stress coping, for better and worse, lies largely in our heads

How we cope with stress stems mostly from what goes on in our heads. We measured four such mindsets, and all related to burnout or thriving.

Some people are more generally and characteristically optimistic than others. In our data, this trait optimism and a more focused climate-change optimism predicted higher thriving and lower burnout. Importantly, the climate-focused results remained after controlling statistically for trait optimism; optimism specifically about climate change has additional coping value, beyond general optimism alone.

Seeing progress in our climate-change battle also helps to cope with stress. Make it a point to recognize sustainability advances by your employer, community or country, and in global data. As with climate optimism, recognizing progress aids stress coping more than general optimism alone.

Believing you have high levels of climate-change knowledge and expertise, including understanding how your knowledge affects business operations, also aids stress coping. Strong professional understanding relates positively to career satisfaction and thriving. 

These perspectives may rise and fall effortlessly, for better or worse. But it’s also a vital option to deliberately change them. If you feel overly pessimistic, you can increase your optimism (realistically and more accurately) by monitoring your media habits and changing your conversation partners. You can embrace and internalize good news (progress does exist!) and engage in rejuvenating discussions. Moreover, highly action-based coping strategies can help even more.

Stress coping, for the best, includes focused action 

My first GreenBiz article was about proactivity — being future-focused and action-oriented — as the behavioral bedrock of sustainability. Proactive behaviors — for example, thinking ahead, spotting and tackling problems, seeing and pursuing opportunities, taking initiative and being a champion of long-term change — can increase thriving without necessarily increasing burnout.

Now is an excellent time to commit to taking specific actions that sustain not just employers and our planet, but also yourself.

A general proactive approach to work entails some risk but has countless net payoffs. Specifically, taking actions that foster sustainability, more than working on tasks that don’t contribute to your personal mission, aids thriving and career satisfaction. Actively addressing stressful work challenges includes strategizing to identify best practices and tactics, discussing plans and brainstorming tactics with others, and changing course by applying more constructive action.

Even if some actions don’t work, attempting them is productive if you learn from them and apply the lessons strategically. These tactics are cornerstones of adaptive leadership in uncharted territories, where we don't know all the answers from the start.

Sustain multiple strategic actions

People typically don’t strategically cope with job stress. Instead, we often withdraw and hope the cause goes away on its own. But we can do better by following classic advice to improve sleep habits and nutrition, exercise regularly, and perhaps practice mindfulness and talk with others. 

Importantly, taking direct action on work challenges gets to the root causes of your stress. If you feel overloaded, you can identify the causes and formulate tactics to reduce or avoid those pressures. You can reduce role conflict by doing what the most influential person wants, or pursuing the alternative you think is right. Or you can suggest creative possibilities, or devise new ones with the relevant parties.  

You can reduce role ambiguities by seeking guidance, obtaining additional relevant information and continuing to learn how to be most effective in your work. The latter is a perpetual option; sustainability is immensely complex, multifunctional, multidisciplinary and ever-changing. 

I don’t recall any back-in-the-day adages about the importance of lifelong learning. But today, we live and work in arenas that truly demand it. Now is an excellent time to identify essential topics you want to learn more about, and commit to taking specific actions that sustain not just employers and our planet, but also yourself.

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