Wellbeing and the Sustainability Practitioner

Eloise Sochanik, Co-Chair of the North West Hub

ICRS Northwest Hub Event: Wellbeing for Sustainability Practitioners

Protecting Your Mental Health as a Sustainability Practitioner

We are more aware of wellbeing and mental health than ever before, and many CR&S professionals have responsibility for employee wellbeing as part of their role. Being mindful of the impacts of workplace cultures and work-life balance and taking steps to ensure that colleagues’ mental health is protected in the workplace is firmly on the rise.

But what about the nature of our work itself? The range of roles held by members of the ICRS is broad and varied, from technical experts to generalists, from student members starting out to fellows with decades of experience, but the knowledge and skills and corresponding pressures and challenges that sit across these roles are unique to the sector. In this article the ICRS North West Hub explores the impact of working in sustainability on wellbeing and ways to build up resilience, protect our mental health and avoid feelings of overwhelm.

As identified at the ICRS Exchange in 2021, the last 2 years have firmly placed CR&S and ESG issues at the heart of business discussions and called for innovative and collaborative approaches to delivering positive impacts. How has that shift in position and perspective affected sustainability practitioners and potentially increased what was already a challenging and potentially stressful profession?

Discussions with individuals uncovered two elements at play – 1. it can be a lonely profession 2. We are dealing society’s most challenging and complex issues. In the main, people in this sector work in small teams, as consultants, or often as a single expert in an organisation. The role understands and recognises business opportunities and risks that may not yet be embedded and often need high levels of persuasiveness and engagement to create the changes required. 

As Alex Mayes, Responsible Business Manager at Kenny Waste Management describes it “This results in a small number of people shouldering all stakeholder enquiries, producing briefing papers and guiding the business through difficult decisions which may have long term reputational, social and environmental implications. This leads to a feeling that your performance is closely linked to the ability to provide answers which enable the business to make appropriate decisions.”

That burden, lack of peer support internally, and working with stakeholders who might not understand the detail can make it difficult to identify priorities, to make swift decisions (when a more balanced approach is required) or be held back by fear of failure.  Often at once a generalist and a specialist, pulling multiple elements into a strategy then being required to solve a problem by deep diving into a particular topic area creates a constant state of flux which can be incredibly draining.

By bringing people together and building those networks and connections, the ICRS can provide that support, as David Vazquez, Head of Sustainability at London Luton Airport and member of the ICRS Fellow Steering Committee puts it "Sharing challenges in a more informal context with other experienced sustainability professionals is a foundational block for our ICRS Fellows Hub. This Hub aims to strengthen the psychological safety within the group, so it becomes a safe space to share vulnerabilities in a world where we sometimes feel we need to have all of the answers”

Secondly, a career that is founded in a desire to create a positive impact can be overwhelming in the current global climate. A seemingly endless cycle of negative environmental news, reports of global poverty and inequality, injustice, and conflict, which often require decisive action and pressure to respond to media commentary, can result in feelings of helplessness.

With reports citing eco-anxiety on the rise in young people, and a re-emergence of green washing in environmental claims, being aware of the science, the impacts on communities and the associated timeframes can sometimes make the outlook bleak. Particularly as we might be more alive to the gap that exists between what currently collective action is achieving and the scale of the issue.

As Priya Satish, Social Value Manager at Maximus says “Especially at a grass roots level, that feeling that there is always more to do can become overwhelming and can accumulate over time. It can seem as though there is never enough resource or time to deliver against the needs of communities, or of your own expectations and that can become overwhelming and tiring”

Knowing that you can make a difference and that it sits within your role to campaign for change, or apply for funding, or convince stakeholders on the solution has the potential to create a never ending to do list, an insatiable appetite for current affairs and a high level of personal involvement in the positive outcomes you are trying to deliver.

It can help to take a step back, to create personal boundaries, to turn off the news or switch to more light-hearted topics and make time for self-care. Achieving our collective sustainability goals requires perseverance and resilience but that cannot come at personal cost.

With a detailed understanding of these challenges, and with the help of experts Dominic Tantram of Terrafiniti and Eileen Donnelly of Ripple&Co we will explore these ideas further and as a group, seek to share ideas, tips and strategies to help budding professionals and expert practitioners alike to overcome the obstacles that they may be facing, and to find ways to protect their mental health and wellbeing.