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Breaking Point to Turning Point: How Research Addresses Burnout in the Climate Movement

BY: Zafreen JafferyON: 11.13.2023

In an era defined by an increasingly urgent need to combat climate change, it's essential to recognize the tireless efforts of those on the front lines of the environmental movement.

In 2022, Tamara Toles O’Laughlin and the team at Climate Critical, a community dedicated to addressing climate change, came to Third Plateau with the idea for a groundbreaking report. They sought to shift the spotlight from the usual discussions on carbon footprints and renewable energy, focusing instead on the well-being of the individuals who are fighting for a habitable planet. In a time when the climate field needs a new perspective more than ever, we knew this report would be a relevant and timely resource.

When conceiving the project, Climate Critical was prepared to uncover a concerning picture of the state of work in the climate field, including the toxic toll on passionate individuals, whose dedication has led to burnout, and in some tragic cases, even death. Their team was keenly aware of the profound multigenerational impact of this reality, especially within communities of color.

To address these distressing trends, Climate Critical partnered with our team at Third Plateau to launch an exploratory study on burnout within the climate and environmental workforce. The study investigates the triggers, conditions, and potential solutions for burnout, all through the voices of those who have experienced it firsthand. We focused our research on the experience, causes, and coping mechanisms employed to prevent or recover from burnout. Additionally, we explored the barriers that individuals face when seeking support for burnout prevention and recovery.

This report was the first of its kind, addressing the critical issue of burnout in the climate and environmental movement.

Climate Critical and Third Plateau invited 108 organizations, groups, and foundations across the environmental sector to conduct a comprehensive survey using the Burnout Assessment Tool (BAT). By leveraging decades of relationships, we crafted questions and organized focus groups that would not further trigger the community already suffering from burnout. Our approach was to engage in an empathetic, community-centered process.

Climate Critical rejects the stale assumption that we can achieve our plans for a habitable planet without an intentional and enduring investment in the people giving their lives to the work,” the report begins. It recognizes that while unwavering visions for environmental change are crucial, we must also consider the emotional toll that comes with the hard work of restoring and repairing our planet. It emphasizes the need to create norms, language, and practices that acknowledge the emotional costs borne by those dedicated to the environmental cause.

The Climate Burnout Report ultimately sheds light on the emotional and psychological challenges faced by those at the forefront of environmental change. It provides a valuable resource for organizations, activists, and policymakers to develop strategies and initiatives that prioritize the well-being of those who have committed their lives to saving our planet.

In an era where the climate movement requires strength, resilience, and solidarity more than ever, our partnership with Climate Critical led to this vital resource for promoting a sustainable, compassionate, and effective environmental movement.

Through focus groups, participants shared stories of lived experiences and hard truths. During this sense-making experience, they had the agency to give voice, interpret, and form solutions. Research like this can elevate community voices and help employers take critical steps to mitigate potential drivers of burnout – specifically for workers who come from marginalized backgrounds.

Our research reminds us that while the pursuit of a better future is essential, it should not come at the cost of the well-being of those who are working tirelessly to make it a reality.

Do you have a big idea? Click here to learn more about our research and evaluation services.

Zafreen Jaffery, EdD is Vice President of Research, Evaluation, and Learning at Third Plateau. She specializes in building client capacity to make sense of data and translating research to nonprofit leaders, policymakers, and funders.

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