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Green at work: The psychology of sustainability in the workplace

A Q&A with Dr. Phillipa Coan, an expert in environmental behaviour change in the workplace.

If there’s one thing the current health crisis is teaching us, it’s that to care for ourselves we must care for nature. Today’s students are more switched on than ever before about the urgent need to protect the environment — partly thanks to ‘The Greta Effect’. A recent Royal Chemistry Society study found that a quarter of young people aged 15-18 consider pursuing a career combating climate change.

This sends a clear message to organisations to step up and recognise that the next generation want to work for companies with solid environmental credentials. That’s why this World Environment Day, we spoke to psychologist Phillipa Coan to explore how to make positive workplace changes for the sake of the planet.

What was your green career journey like? How did your interest in environmental sustainability shape your career? 

As with most career stories, my journey into environmental sustainability was unexpected. As soon as I got a taster for psychology at A-level, I knew I wanted a career that explored why people behave in the way they do. Then, having worked as a Business Psychologist for a few years I came across an article written by researchers at Leeds University Business School. They were calling for more Business Psychologists to apply their knowledge and skills to the climate crisis given improving the environmental performance of an organisation is similar to any other traditional organisational change challenge. I immediately knew it would be a really interesting topic for a PhD and provide a great opportunity to learn more about sustainability. 

During my studies I realised there was limited research in the area and limited psychologists directly working in the area. I therefore decided to set up my own company, STRIDE. Five years on, I now work with a team of psychologists and more technical energy management and sustainability specialists to help companies save energy, carbon and money. In the last year I have also set up a sister company, Stride Coaching, which leverages my academic research and experience in corporate sustainability to a broader set of challenges facing organisations today. 

Tell us more about STRIDE and how you put people at the heart of organisation environmental strategy. What insights or trends have you found over the years?

My top 5 catalysts for behaviour change would be:

  1. Make the more sustainable choice convenient and easy for people (i.e. make the default option the most environmental) whilst making the poor environmental choice inconvenient.
  2. Provide impressive stats on the number of people currently engaged in the environmental behaviour you’re trying to promote.
  3. Involve your target audience in decisions about how to achieve greater sustainability, whether your own workforce or your customer base. They need to be engaged and ‘own’ as much of the initiative as possible.
  4. Investigate what is going to motivate your target audience. It may not be the sustainability message. What other co-benefits are associated with being more sustainable? For example: positive health outcomes, cost savings, reduced business risks, a more engaged workforce, meeting legislation, attracting and retaining talent in your company, protecting your children’s future.
  5. Provide as much feedback as possible following behaviour change. How are they doing against set goals? How much energy/carbon/money have they saved? Always present these savings without jargon, so rather than kWh savings refer to, for example, the equivalent number of car journeys.

How can businesses engage people in addressing the challenge of climate change? Where do they begin?

Talk to those people whose behaviour you are trying to change. Find out what they think the barriers and opportunities are – listen and work together to build a strategy moving forward. Interact with your supply chain. Often you just need to ask a few very simple questions to your suppliers to find out what they are doing well and what areas you need to put pressure on them to improve.

Make it clear what your expectations are. You will likely find you are not the first organisation to ask these questions and better still you may find out that your suppliers have already introduced sustainable processes and policies which you didn’t realise.

On the flipside, how can employees in big organisations get their leaders attention and encourage them to act on sustainability?

Rather than simply calling for more action on sustainability within your organisation, approach your managers, senior leaders and decision makers with a proposed four step solution.

1. Start with the ‘why’ – What is the purpose of the conversation? Why should they listen to your ideas? What are the implications if the organisation ignores you?

2. Then if they were to act on your ideas, what will the end result look and feel like? What are the benefits?

3. Move on to the step by step plan – What’s the strategy? What resources will you need? What barriers need mitigating?

4. And finally what part will you play and what do you expect from them and others?

Try sharing your ideas with work colleagues first to get their input and create a community of interest.

What are your predictions for the future when it comes to environmental behaviour change? 

We are at a very interesting crossroads given the current situation with Covid-19. Will governments panic and kickstart struggling economies by relaxing environmental policies in carbon intensive industries like aviation, construction and oil and gas? Or will governments recognise the hiatus has created the space to rethink how to take lasting action on climate change and capitalise on the regeneration of the environment? Afterall, some economists have argued green stimulus measures, in response to the coronavirus, are among the most beneficial for the economy.  

Covid-19 is clearly having a devastating global impact on public health and the economy. But this pause in business as usual has seen record declines in carbon emissions and associated air pollution across the world, saving millions of lives. One estimate reports 20 times more lives are being (unwittingly) saved due to air pollution reductions from global lockdown than lost to Covid-19. Do we want to revert to an annual global death toll of 4.2 million premature deaths from air pollution? 

Negative environmental actions, before the virus took hold, have not only exacerbated Covid related deaths but were key contributors to the pandemic in the first place – deforestation, industrial agriculture and global heating all increase ‘zoonosis’ – the transmission of diseases from animals to humans.

A green recovery is essential to capitalise on these reduced emissions; move forward on the Paris Climate Agreements and Sustainable Development Goals; as well as safeguard our vulnerability to future viruses. Many organisations already started to commit to net zero carbon futures before the pandemic hit. These priorities need to be kickstarted when businesses are up and running again.

This could be a tipping point. The government has proven that it can put public health and well-being at the top of their agenda. If government and business leaders could recognise the climate emergency poses a similar threat, then we have a real chance of seizing this opportunity for environmental change.

This will heavily rely on an integrated solution between technology, data and people. Businesses must take a holistic view to identify what changes are needed to reach a net zero carbon future in terms of their corporate strategy, culture, policies, procedures, technology and built infrastructure. What will certainly be paramount at this time is exceptionally strong leadership.  

Businesses will likely be reticent about upfront investment costs for energy reduction measures (i.e. technological solutions) given the financial slump they will have experienced. Fortunately, behaviour change measures (i.e. getting staff to do things differently) are typically low or no cost to the business and will ultimately save money via lower energy bills. 

Given the number of behavioural changes employees have undergone in lockdown, they may be primed for behaviour change back in the workplace. Looking at specific behaviours, a core theme arising from Covid-19 has been a redefinition of essential travel. Businesses have recognised that a lot of commuting and business travel was superfluous. The increase in working from home along with the accessibility and effectiveness of virtual meetings will likely lead to a significant reduction in work travel behaviours.

This could be a tipping point. The government has proven that it can put public health and well-being at the top of their agenda. If government and business leaders could recognise the climate emergency poses a similar threat, then we have a real chance of seizing this opportunity for environmental change, improving global health and ultimately saving our planet.

Dr Phillipa Coan is the founder of STRIDE. Dr Coan is an expert in workplace environmental behaviour change and a leading figure in applying business psychology to the area. Her PhD broadly looked at different strategies for changing employee behaviour to be more environmentally sustainable and she won both university and national awards. Her consultancy work has spanned a variety of sectors and industries including oil and gas, manufacturing, engineering, retail, healthcare, fashion, higher education and financial services. Phillipa is also a Visiting Research Fellow at Leeds University Business School and a chartered member of the British Psychological Society.

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