How do we keep our cool as the temperature rises?

Jun 21, 2024 | General

The importance of wellbeing for conservation professionals

One of my most fundamental beliefs, one that underpins all the work I do in Human Nature, is that people have the potential to be a force for good as we tackle ecological and climate crises. Whilst human action can cause problems, it is humans who are the solution. And my collaborators, Catalyst members, course participants and friends in the sector are all at the forefront of that solution. 

And when I talk with these people I see that the strains of this work are taking their toll. On all of us working in the conservation sector. So many of us are Not Fine. There are good reasons for that. What follows is my perspective on why stress and burnout is hitting conservation professionals so hard, and some ideas on what can be done about it. 

I’m not claiming any expertise in wellbeing. I’m writing this as someone who is very much in the melee. I know from my own experience how important this issue is, and that I don’t have all the answers. 

My hope is to be part of the conversation, and to help us all, myself included, take steps that help us feel and do better. It is perfectly reasonable to want to work in the conservation sector, doing a job with impact, AND feel healthy. The cost of this work should not be our mental or physical health. 

Work culture isn’t working for us, or our mission 

It’s not news that the culture in most sectors and workplaces is busy, to the extreme. Busy has become a synonym for important – if you’re not rushed off your feet are you really doing valuable work? 

This workplace culture creates noise and erodes our energy. Many of the people I work with are overwhelmed. They are working hard, and effectively, yet it simply isn’t possible for them to do the ‘important but not urgent’ work. 

There’s no time to read papers or go to presentations on important, partially related topics – which is where the connections and cross-pollination happens. Our work culture does not facilitate these processes which are vital to unlocking the interdisciplinary and innovative approaches we need to address the ecological crises.

And this is equally true in other sectors. But for conservation professionals the price of this feels particularly high. Because we are first in line when it comes to witnessing the stark realities facing our planet. In the words of climate scientist Ruth Cerezo-Mota in a recent Guardian article on what 380 scientists feel about the future, “Sometimes it is almost impossible not to feel hopeless and broken.”

Our work matters and we know it

Many of the conservation professionals I know are on full time high alert. They’re trying to do everything they can to slow down or reverse bleak environmental predictions. It’s more than a job, it feels like a 24/7 mission. They see the data around what’s happening to our ecosystems, they witness species extinctions and habitat change and know the urgency is real. 

This is true for me, too. Papers I read 20 years ago describing huge changes in the ecological functions of the oceans still stick with me today. I remember attending a course on climate change in 2007.  We discussed the absolute importance of staying below 400ppm CO2, and how we had the tools to do that then. The state we’re in now leaves me with more emotions than I can identify. 

The trouble with mission-mode is that we’re not designed to live like that long-term. We are exhausted. 

The invisible work of life

It’s not just work that pulls at us. I want to acknowledge all the work that goes into being an adult, running a household, living a life. Especially if you have caring responsibilities for others, or disabilities or health conditions. I’m very much at the sharp end of this as I publish this blog: I’ve just taken one of my children out of school after months of challenges – so there’s a lot going on as we support recovery and adjust to home education.  

We each need to recognise that we only have so much to give. And that many of the solutions offered to those of us with multiple spinning plates feel as though they merely give us more to do. The responsibility is pushed back to us in the form of advice about self care, or better habits. 

So what are some answers to this cocktail of pressures on conservation professionals? 

If you’re in crisis

The rest of this blog is concerned with how we can make changes to improve our wellbeing – both from an individual and an organisational perspective. But if you’re reading this and know that you’re close to breaking point, please seek urgent help.

Know that you are not alone in this, and that the most important thing you can do is seek the help you need. Mind and The Samaritans are good starting points in the UK. Please also contact your GP. 

Let’s influence systemic, cultural or organisational change

When we talk about wellbeing, quite often we focus on what we can do as individuals to support ourselves better. And I will be doing that too. But many of the things that create stress in our lives are the result of someone else’s decision. For example, a friend works in an organisation where it’s typical to have 9am Monday internal deadlines. What message does this send to staff? That they are expected (or at least implicitly invited) to work through the weekend. Perhaps this practice started in response to staff asking for flexibility on a particular project when backs were up against the wall. But it became a standard schedule, one that reinforces a culture prioritising work over rest. Imagine instead the message a ‘4pm Thursday’ deadline would send: that work is expected to happen during work hours, and that it is also important to have work time for the important tasks that get neglected in the face of deadlines.

I do realise this example assumes a standard Monday to Friday working pattern. My point isn’t that work can’t or shouldn’t be done flexibly – believe me, I’ve done plenty of 11pm finishes while working at Human Nature, where I am the boss! It’s that leaders have a responsibility to set and maintain working practices that discourage ‘over and above’ working in unsociable hours as far as possible. 

It takes a level of security, confidence and courage to suggest changes to unhealthy work practices. Not all of us feel safe or equipped to do so. Yet, sometimes sticking your head above the parapet can be worth it. Respectfully pointing out the negative impact of, for example, avoidably short deadlines, might make all the difference to future planning. Or at least plant a seed, and encourage colleagues to also speak up. 

How can we support and advocate for each other in the workplace? This is a question I’ll get into more over future weeks. I think questioning ‘the way things are done’ and supporting or advocating for colleagues when they do so is a great start.

Let’s influence systemic, cultural or organisational change

When we talk about wellbeing, quite often we focus on what we can do as individuals to support ourselves better. And I will be doing that too. But many of the things that create stress in our lives are the result of someone else’s decision. For example, a friend works in an organisation where it’s typical to have 9am Monday internal deadlines. What message does this send to staff? That they are expected (or at least implicitly invited) to work through the weekend. Perhaps this practice started in response to staff asking for flexibility on a particular project when backs were up against the wall. But it became a standard schedule, one that reinforces a culture prioritising work over rest. Imagine instead the message a ‘4pm Thursday’ deadline would send: that work is expected to happen during work hours, and that it is also important to have work time for the important tasks that get neglected in the face of deadlines.

I do realise this example assumes a standard Monday to Friday working pattern. My point isn’t that work can’t or shouldn’t be done flexibly – believe me, I’ve done plenty of 11pm finishes while working at Human Nature, where I am the boss! It’s that leaders have a responsibility to set and maintain working practices that discourage ‘over and above’ working in unsociable hours as far as possible. 

It takes a level of security, confidence and courage to suggest changes to unhealthy work practices. Not all of us feel safe or equipped to do so. Yet, sometimes sticking your head above the parapet can be worth it. Respectfully pointing out the negative impact of, for example, avoidably short deadlines, might make all the difference to future planning. Or at least plant a seed, and encourage colleagues to also speak up. 

How can we support and advocate for each other in the workplace? This is a question I’ll get into more over future weeks. I think questioning ‘the way things are done’ and supporting or advocating for colleagues when they do so is a great start.

To finish, I have two invitations. 

First of all, please do connect with me on LinkedIn

And secondly, a habit I’ve had in place for years now, thanks to Sara Price of Actually

Next time you are planning your week’s priorities, add in one thing. Not just another thing on your to-do list. One that is specifically about doing something for yourself. It might be as mundane as being in bed by 10pm. It might be a fun activity, such as going out with friends. It might be taking a lunchtime walk rather than working and eating over your laptop. But factor yourself into your weekly priorities, and be accountable in exactly the same way you would for a work task. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the issues I’ve raised in this blog and how they affect you. This is a subject I’ll be returning to, and it is very much a conversation at the forefront of my mind! So please do just get in touch with ideas and feedback. I promise to reply at some point (with no 9am Monday deadline!).

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