From: Issue 40

Workplace Environment

17 September, 2012

Are corporations that ignore or contribute to our growing climate crisis more likely to have employees with mental health problems? CK explores the question as it relates to productivity.

Written by Sanjay Khanna, Contributor

Illustration by Jon Krause

Unfortunate fallout from the global economic crisis – notably double-digit unemployment – is driving citizens of the most-affected countries to a mental breaking point. The global climate-change juggernaut is wreaking havoc, too, and not just with temperatures and sea levels: Bloomberg News reported this summer that drought in the U.S. Corn Belt had led to a 55 per cent jump in corn futures between mid-June and late July, while the Financial Times declared that pork and chicken prices would significantly rise, transforming everyday meats into luxury foods. In the era of austerity, the threat of rising grocery bills is yet another potential mental health stressor.

In the workplace, there is a compelling case to be made that this confluence of economic, environmental and climate volatility may increasingly add up to a decline in employee mental health and, by association, worker productivity. A smoke signal of note: a 2012 report sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation and co-authored by Lise van Susteren, a psychiatrist and trauma expert, stated: “The economic costs of climate change will be high by any measure. But its specific effect on U.S. mental health, societal well-being and productivity will increase current U.S. expenditures on mental health services, adding to our current $300 billion annual burden.”

Rensia Melles is the manager of global solutions at Shepell.fgi, where she develops employee assistance and health and wellness programs used by thousands of organizations around the world. She said company employees are affected directly and indirectly by environmental and climate change. “Direct experience can cause distress. So, too, can indirect experience through media and conversations with people, which may lead to anxiety about the future. There’s also the psychosocial impact related to the conflict between those who see that climatic change is happening and ‘deniers’ who say it’s not happening,” explained Melles.

And if a company is directly contributing, or perceived to be contributing, to the problem?

Take energy giant Enbridge, ranked by Corporate Knights as one of the Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations. The company recently took a big hit to its reputation because of toxic oil spills in Alberta, Michigan and now Wisconsin. For example, a British Columbia newspaper reported that a movie audience in the provincial capital of Victoria booed when shown an Enbridge promotional video for its planned 1,000-kilometre Northern Gateway pipeline project. Could reactions like these affect the morale of Enbridge employees, who are witnessing more negative reports about the company in the news media? Do stress and anxiety afflict its workers more than those of an oil company like Cenovus, now seen as an up-and-coming corporate social responsibility leader? Similarly, did morale plunge at BP – and mental health claims rise – after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, or at Exxon Mobil after the company was regularly cited for funding organizations whose raison d’être was to discredit state-of-the-art, peer-reviewed climate science?

“There is no research available at this time that shows a negative correlation between a lack of corporate social responsibility and employee stress,” said Melles. However, research has shown that: “Companies that have a good reputation for corporate social responsibility, including employee care, are more likely to have employees who stay [and] are committed to productivity and to company objectives.”

Much depends on whether or not an employee views her job as a career, rather than as a paycheque, said University of Toronto professor Carolyn Dewa, head of the occupational health program at Ontario’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. “If the worker views her company as a place that is tied to her career, and that she contributes to the success of that company, she is at risk of experiencing more stress when the company is not successful,” said Dewa, noting that negative publicity could fuel this stress, particularly if the employer’s financial viability is at stake, and thus job security.

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