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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Anna Cooke, Honorary Fellow, School of the Environment, The University of Queensland

We feel ecological grief when we lose places, species or ecosystems we value and love. These losses are a growing threat to mental health and wellbeing globally.

We all see news of environmental degradation and climate change impacts around the world. But environmental scientists, rangers, engineers, advocates and policymakers are at particular risk of ecological grief, due to their first-hand experience of environmental decline. Our author group has heard from colleagues about the impacts of coral bleaching, bushfires and floods on their work and the distress they feel.

Ecologist Daniella Teixeira has also written about her “immense grief” at the impact of bushfires on the species she was studying:

I grieved not only for the glossy black cockatoos and other damaged species, but also the loss that would come in the future under climate change. […] I will inevitably face more crises, and dealing with them effectively means keeping my mental health in check.

In our paper published today we draw on psychology and public health research for insights and strategies that help people adapt to loss, and apply these to ecological grief. We developed an approach we call “ecological grief literacy”. We highlight three key elements: peer support, organisational change and practical workplace strategies.

Exploring ecological grief literacy

Grief literacy relates to the knowledge, skills and values that help with loss and grieving. When adapting the concept for ecological grief, we thought about the differences between bereavement and environmental loss.

Bereavement usually happens after a single event – the loss of a loved one. But environmental losses have constant uncertainty in timing and severity. They are happening now, but are also ongoing.

These losses interact and add up. Scientists might watch a species decline towards extinction over their years of research. Or a bushfire or bleaching event might damage an ecosystem supporting many endangered species, with rangers unable to help.

We started with a workshop to explore strategies to support these workers. We shared information about the science of stress and emotion. We explored the knowledge, skills and values that make up ecological grief literacy.

The workshop provided a range of exercises and resources so participants could take what was useful for them.

What are the key elements of this approach?

Ecological grief literacy has several aspects.

Peer support

Social support is crucial in adapting to loss. People then feel cared for and have the help they most need.

For losses 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 well acknowledged or understood in the community. Helpful support is most likely to come from colleagues or peers who share the experience of working with nature.

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

One of our workshop’s main goals was to enable people to talk about their ecological grief with others who shared a connection to nature. As the workshop was told:

At times, I’ve had to stop watching the news or reading reports about climate change. My stomach still clenches just thinking about opening an IPCC report. How can I work?

Another person said:

My eco-grief is more a general feeling of dread and sadness and worry for my kids, and their (future) kids – all of the coming generations – these days.

Deep listening and sensitivity

Environmental professionals can develop the skill of listening deeply to colleagues 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 individual reactions differ. We will also feel differently over time.

Emotions such as sadness, despair, anger, guilt, fear and yearning, feeling numb or disconnected, are all normal reactions to environmental loss. Being listened to can be a huge relief when grieving.

I frequently engage with government and policy inquiries to try to make things better. Nothing is getting better. Nothing works. I oscillate between pure rage and total despair […] I feel a huge responsibility to use my privilege and my knowledge to push for change. It’s exhausting and very lonely.

Valuing an ethic of care

Recognising that we will all be vulnerable at some time in our lives can help create a supportive community. People are then able to ask for and receive help when needed.

Our workshop explored the concept of compassion motivation – both being aware of distress and suffering, and wanting and intending to attempt to ease it.

For ongoing ecological grief, it is important to direct this compassion towards ourselves as well as others. We need to prioritise times of rest and also distraction. Remember the saying, “you can’t pour from an empty cup”.

No one-size-fits-all approach

There is no universally best or right way to respond to loss. What helps one person may not work for another.

Some may prefer to go for a run in the bush with a friend. Others may benefit from open discussions in safe spaces, such as Psychology for a Safe Climate’s online Climate Cafes.

It is important to know and communicate that many options are 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’s crucial for organisations to create supportive structures and resources for workers. Environmental professionals facing ecological grief need support in their workplaces and access to information and options that suit them.

To be effective, ecological grief literacy should be built into all levels of these organisations, encompassing leadership and all team members. These steps might include:

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

  • training about ecological grief to give staff the skills to support one another

  • allocating time, personnel and funding to meet needs arising from ecological grief

  • pathways to get support from a mental health professional with specialist skills in ecological grief when needed.

Ecological grief is a normal and valid response to environmental losses. Making ecological grief literacy part of day-to-day workplace health and safety will help with not only environmental professionals’ wellbeing but also their work to protect the species and ecosystems on which we all depend.

If there is just one takeaway we would emphasise it is that social connection and support in the workplace are important. We hope readers at risk of ecological grief will forward this piece to colleagues and say: “For our next meeting?”

The Conversation

Anna Cooke is a volunteer for the Greens and donates to various environmental organisations. The workshop for this research was funded by the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science at the University of Queensland.

Claudia Benham receives funding from the Australian Research Council through an ARC DECRA Fellowship on the topic of ecological grief.

Julie Dean is affiliated with a range of environmental organisations as a donor and occasional volunteer.

Nathalie Butt does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. Many people are feeling ecological grief. How can we help those whose work puts them at risk? –