Many people are feeling environmental grief. How can we help people who are at risk at work?

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We experience ecological grief when we lose places, species, and ecosystems that we cherish and love. These losses pose a growing threat to mental health and well-being around the world.

We all see news about environmental degradation and the effects of climate change around the world. But environmental scientists, rangers, engineers, advocates, and policy makers are at particular risk of exposure to ecological grief because they experience environmental degradation firsthand. Our author group hears from colleagues about the impact of coral bleaching, wildfires, and flooding on their work and the pain they are feeling.

Ecologist Daniela Teixeira also wrote of her “immeasurable sadness” over the impact of the wildfires on the species she was studying.

I grieved not only for the glossy black parrot and other affected species, but also for the losses that would occur in the future due to climate change. […] I will inevitably face further crises, but dealing with them effectively means preserving my mental health.

The paper published today draws on research in psychology and public health to derive insights and strategies to help people adapt to loss and applies them to ecological grief. We have developed an approach we call “ecological grief literacy.” We emphasize three key elements: peer support, organizational change, and practical workplace strategies.

Exploring ecological grief literacy

Grief literacy relates to the knowledge, skills, and values ​​that help with loss and grief. In applying this concept to ecological grief, we considered the difference between bereavement and environmental loss.

Bereavement usually occurs after a single event: the loss of a loved one. However, environmental losses always involve uncertainty in their timing and severity. They are happening now and are ongoing.

These losses interact and add up. Through years of study, scientists may observe a species decline toward extinction. Or wildfires or bleaching events could damage ecosystems that support many endangered species, leaving rangers unable to help.

We started with workshops to explore strategies to support these workers. We shared information about the science of stress and emotions. We explored the knowledge, skills, and values ​​that constitute ecological grief literacy.

The workshop provided a variety of exercises and resources for participants to take advantage of.

A smoky mouse held by a researcher against the background of a burnt forest
Scientists who work every day to eliminate habitats and species such as the smoky mouse are at high risk of ecological grief.
New South Wales Government/AAP

What are the key elements of this approach?

Ecological grief literacy has several aspects.

peer support

Social support is essential to adapting to loss. This will help people feel valued and get the help they need most.

In the case of a loss, such as the death of a loved one, much of this support is likely to come from family and friends.

However, ecological grief is less recognized and understood in local communities. Helpful support is most likely to come from colleagues and peers who share experience working with nature.

Peer support has also been shown to be useful in other workplaces, such as disaster response, health and education settings.

One of the main goals of our workshop was to enable people to discuss ecological grief with others who share a connection to nature. At the workshop, the following was said:

Sometimes I’ve had to stop watching the news or reading reports about climate change. I still get a knot in my stomach just thinking about opening the IPCC report. How can I work?

Another said:

My eco-grief is rather a general feeling of fear, sadness, and worry for my children and their (future) children, the entire next generation.

deep listening and sensitivity

Environmental professionals can develop skills to deeply listen to colleagues who are experiencing grief. Asking questions in a sensitive way helps people express their experiences without fear of judgment or unsolicited advice.

One reason this is important is because individuals react differently. As time passes, the way we feel changes.

Feelings of sadness, despair, anger, guilt, fear and longing, numbness and isolation are all normal responses to environmental loss. Being listened to can bring great comfort when you are grieving.

I am frequently involved in government and policy research to improve the situation. Nothing is getting better. nothing works.vacillating between pure anger and complete despair […] I feel a great responsibility to use my privilege and knowledge to drive change. It’s very tiring and I feel very lonely.

Value the ethics of care

Recognizing that we all find ourselves vulnerable at some point in our lives helps build supportive communities. That way, people can ask for and receive help when they need it.

In our workshop, we explored the concept of compassion motivation, which is both the recognition of pain and suffering and the desire and attempt to alleviate it.

When ecological grief persists, it is important to extend this compassion not only to ourselves but also to others. You need to prioritize rest and recreation time. Remember the saying, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

There is no one-size-fits-all approach

There is no universally best or correct way to respond to loss. What is helpful to one person may not be helpful to another.

Some people may want to go running in the bush with their friends. Some people benefit from open discussions in safe spaces, such as Psychology for a Safe Climate’s online Climate Cafe.

It is important to know and communicate that there are many options available.

What does this mean for the workplace?

Australia has world-leading laws requiring employers to protect mental health in the workplace.

While individuals can improve their ecological grief literacy, it is important for organizations to build structures and resources to support workers. Environmental professionals facing ecological grief need support in the workplace and access to information and options that suit them.

To be effective, ecological grief literacy should be embedded at all levels of these organizations, including leadership and all team members. These steps may include:

  • Formal and informal opportunities for peer support to encourage people to discuss and share their experiences

  • Training on ecological grief to give staff the skills to support each other

  • Allocate time, personnel, and funds to meet needs arising from ecological grief

  • A pathway to receive support, if needed, from a mental health professional with specialized skills in environmental grief.

Ecological grief is a normal and valid response to environmental loss. Making ecological grief literacy a part of everyday workplace health and safety not only benefits the well-being of environmental professionals, but also their work protecting the species and ecosystems on which we all depend. .

If there is one lesson I would like to emphasize, it is that social connections and support in the workplace are important. I hope readers who are at risk for ecological grief will forward this article to their colleagues and say, “Next meeting?”

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