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The link between sustainable business practices and employee well-being

Business practices that are good for the environment often also appear to bolster employee well-being and mental health.

The link between sustainable business practices and employee well-being
[Syda Productions / Adobe Stock]

Building sustainable businesses and tackling stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues in the workplace are usually viewed as two separate projects. In fact, these initiatives often go hand in hand as business practices that are good for the environment often also appear to bolster employee well-being and mental health.

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ECO-ANXIETY: THE NEXT PRESSING WORKPLACE ISSUE

In 2021, the American Psychology Association published a study on climate change and mental health. The study found that climate change and its effects can result in an “increased sense of helplessness, hopelessness, or fatalism, and intense feelings of loss.” Climate anxiety or eco-anxiety is especially high among younger adults (ages 18-34); nearly half (48%) identify it as a source of stress. While eco-anxiety may not appear to be a workplace issue, it is quickly becoming one.

In 2021, a World Economic Forum study found that 59% of employees leaving their jobs are leaving to join an organization more aligned with their values. There is reason to believe that sustainability is a key concern for many employees on the move. A 2021 IBM study found that a majority (71%) of employees view environmentally sustainable companies as more attractive employers. These findings suggest that making sustainability part of one’s core business proposition may not simply be good for the environment but also potentially good for employee well-being and business.

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Employees want and even need to work for organizations that embrace their values, which increasingly include sustainability. Given the evidence that taking action on climate change (i.e., being part of the solution rather than the problem) also seems to hold the potential to mitigate eco-anxiety, it follows that organizations that embrace sustainability may also contribute to a reduction in employee stress and anxiety levels.

REMOTE WORK, SUSTAINABILITY, AND EMPLOYEE MENTAL HEALTH 

Saying you support sustainable practices is one thing. Walking your talk in everything you do is another. Small steps (e.g., launching or more rigorously enforcing an existing workplace recycling program) can help. But with more employees holding leaders accountable, walking one’s talk will likely take more than diverting office waste from landfill sites. One possible solution is to assess the potential environmental and wellness benefits of permanently embracing some form of remote and hybrid work.

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In terms of the environmental impact, remote and hybrid work can yield many benefits. Beyond eliminating the carbon emissions associated with people’s daily commutes, remote and hybrid work can also help build more sustainable businesses on myriad other levels. Most notably, eliminating or moving to smaller offices can drastically reduce an organization’s carbon footprint. Small habit changes (e.g., employees replacing take-out meals with home-cooked ones) can also reduce daily waste. While it is important to acknowledge that working at home does come with its own environmental impacts, especially if employees replace daily work commutes with different types of travel, the move from on-site to remote and hybrid work generally promotes sustainability. But this isn’t the only benefit.

Over the course of the pandemic, hundreds of studies have been carried out on the psychological impacts of remote and hybrid work. Not all studies have reached identical conclusions, but some recurring themes have emerged. One of the most consistent findings is that the option to work remotely, at least part-time, reduces stress and anxiety. As such, remote and hybrid may not simply help organizations reach net-zero standards more quickly but also mitigate many forms of workplace stress and anxiety.

Remote or hybrid work, at least when presented as options, seem to be a potentially powerful way to tackle two growing workplace concerns: the need to build more sustainable businesses and tackle mental health issues, including stress and anxiety. Given that there is also compelling evidence employees are increasingly seeking organizations aligned with their core values, there is also reason to believe that embracing sustainability is also something good for employee recruitment and retention and, ultimately, something good for business.

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Dr. Camille Preston is a business psychologist, leadership expert, and the founder and CEO of AIM Leadership

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