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A sustainability challenge and opportunity

In our rapidly evolving, increasingly fast-paced and unstable world, promoting mental health is recognized as being more important than ever. Sustainability concerns, including the stresses of climate change and social instabilities, are at the forefront of people’s minds across the globe. Specifically, employee mental health and overall well-being has become a priority for businesses and organizations worldwide. While employer engagement in ensuring a healthy work environment is rising, employees are also being empowered to seek out resources that help improve their well-being.

Mental health and well-being are tightly connected to sustainability objectives within our work environments and lives. This intrinsic link is reflected throughout the framework of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the SDG’s influence on other leading international bodies. According to the World Health Organization, “there can be no health or sustainable development without proper mental health.” The 2020 World Happiness Report has also developed a conceptual model exploring the ways sustainable development and well-being are influencing each other. It found that the SDGs are strongly related to the “determinants of well-being,” which include income, social support, generosity, freedom, trust in government, and health. In terms of how mental health and well-being connect with sustainability, the SDGs highlight this important topic as a specific humanitarian-related objective: SDG 3 – Good Health and Well-Being. Global health has broad implications that span all 17 SDGs, as mental health and well-being represent opportunities for the evolution of how we approach wellness across societies and sectors.

As an essential component to people’s well-being, mental health awareness and its importance is growing. Notably, businesses are recognizing their role in creating and maintaining a healthy workplace for their employees. Because well-being is a multidimensional concept, employers must approach it from a nuanced perspective. The interplay among emotional, psychological, and social states shapes how people think, feel, and behave. Mental health is one of the most critical aspects in creating a sustainable world in the future. Therefore, if the mental health challenge is addressed, the opportunities for advancing sustainability will follow naturally.


Sustainable practices can positively contribute to mental health

Mental health and sustainability are interconnected. Together, these two themes significantly impact individuals, communities, and the planet. In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the relationship between these two areas and the influence they have on each other. When people engage in environmentally sustainable behaviors – such as conserving energy, reducing waste, and promoting green spaces – they feel better and have a more positive outlook. Recent research also gives us insight into how spending time in nature and participating in outdoor activities can greatly improve mood, reduce stress, and enhance focus. Green spaces in particular have been found to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, promote physical activity, and encourage social interactions, all of which contribute to better mental health outcomes. An increase in green space proportion by 10% is associated with an approximately 4% reduction in the risk of depression. In a nationwide study, researchers from Denmark’s University of Aarhus found that childhood exposure to green space reduces the risk for developing psychiatric disorders by 55%. It’s no surprise that Copenhagen’s dedication to green space-focused urban planning has had a big impact on the quality of life there.

Furthermore, the connection between mental health and sustainability extends beyond the individual level. A sustainable society that is built on principles of equality, social cohesion, and justice fosters an environment conducive to mental health. Addressing social inequalities, providing access to quality healthcare and education, and promoting cultural engagement can create a supportive and inclusive society that nurtures mental well-being for all its members. By creating communities focused on collaboration, empathy, and solidarity, individuals are more likely to experience a sense of social support that acts as a buffer against the negative impacts of stress and mental health challenges.

Sustainable development initiatives aimed at improving environmental conservation and social equity have the potential to positively impact mental health and well-being on a global scale. By prioritizing mental health across the SDGs, and as part of corporate responsibility initiatives, organizations can ensure that well-being is fully integrated into business practices. Recognizing the challenging aspects for organizations when employees are struggling with mental health, business leaders are making broad efforts to create a more sustainable and equitable world from within their boardrooms.

Several companies around the world have developed conscious programming geared toward employee health. Canadian telecom corporation Bell has done work in the mental health space that has had a global impact. Through their annual Let’s Talk day, the company has donated more than $100 million to mental health initiatives across Canada. Bell’s multifaceted approach to improving employee well-being has also catalyzed international dialogues about mental health stigmas. Another example is EY’s “Better You” program, which is designed to support the social and emotional needs of its employees. This initiative offers workers free resources to help them “find balance so that they can fully engage at the office and in life.” To support mental health, EY’s program gives employees up to 25 counseling, mindfulness training, and mediation sessions.


Purpose impacts well-being

In today’s increasingly complex and interconnected world, people face numerous challenges that can often leave them feeling overwhelmed, disconnected, and uncertain about their place in the world. It is during these times that finding a sense of purpose is more crucial than ever before. Purpose and its impact on well-being is not merely about achieving personal goals or attaining success. Purpose is about discovering deeper fulfillment and using that as a driving force to create positive change for ourselves and the surrounding world. Research has shown that individuals with a strong sense of purpose and meaning in life tend to have better mental health and overall well-being. Not only are people with a sense of life purpose also less likely to have fewer health complications, but they are also more inclined to practice sustainable behaviors.

When individuals lack a sense of purpose, they may feel alone and struggle to find meaning in their lives. This often leads to feelings of emptiness, anxiety, and depression. However, when individuals connect with their purpose, whether through introspection or external influences, it can have profound effects on their mental health and life in general. A clear direction that motivates people to set meaningful goals is indicative of purpose-driven living. While pursuing activities aligned with core values and passions, motivation also rises and so does resiliency. Purpose-driven individuals will likely exhibit higher levels of optimism and hope, which contribute to enhanced psychological well-being. Moreover, living with purpose builds a strong sense of identity and empowers people to foster unique strengths.

In business, leaders and employees alike must be able to align their purpose with the company’s purpose. For companies to thrive, there needs to be a connection between organizational and individual purpose. With this aligned end goal of interconnected purpose, results follow: when businesses clearly define their purpose, there is a positive impact on mental health and well-being. Only when businesses start by bringing their purpose to the forefront of the core organizational structure will people be able to connect in an authentic way; a positive impact on mental health and well-being will then follow.

Sustainable behaviors are an opportunity to provide individuals with mental health challenges a sense of purpose and fulfillment. In this regard, fostering sustainable practices within business can boost mental health and well-being. This is especially important among employees, as the World Health Organization reports that depression is the top cause of workplace disability worldwide. Untreated mental health illnesses cost U.S. companies alone about $500 billion in lost productivity annually. However, when businesses prioritize the mental health of their workers, they can help employees succeed and thrive in the workplace as well as boost profits.

Outdoor gear company Patagonia is a stellar example of how purpose deeply ingrained at all levels drives value. They not only create high-quality products, but also encourage employees to participate in environmental initiatives by providing opportunities for activism. Through their purpose-driven approach that focuses on the well-being of their people, Patagonia has enjoyed a $1 billion revenue surge with their ESG success. Making bold commitments to sustainability and mental health, Johnson & Johnson lives its purpose as well. The multinational brand has instituted its Healthy Mind program as part of its comprehensive employee wellness initiative. Johnson & Johnson’s health component of the program includes teaching both employees and their families about the importance of mental well-being. Additionally, the company recently launched the One Mind Initiative, which seeks to expand access to mental healthcare, transform coverage, and change workplace mental health through bringing together influential CEOs and sustainable practices.


The future of mental health and well-being

The world is currently facing multiple crises. As we look toward the future through the framework of the SDGs, it is essential to recognize the importance of continued efforts in promoting the connection between mental health and sustainability. Environmental degradation and biodiversity loss not only harm ecosystems, but also have detrimental effects on human mental health. Natural disasters, resource scarcity, and pollution lead to increased stress, anxiety, and depression among individuals and communities. From the severity of climate change to the global mental health epidemic, addressing these challenges requires a comprehensive approach that integrates both social and environmental perspectives.

There is growing evidence of the multiple factors through which climate change is affecting mental health. Even in the absence of climate change, mental health conditions already represent a significant burden worldwide. In many countries, large gaps exist between mental health needs and the services and systems available to address them. In fact, as few as 3% of patients with mental illness receive formal mental health care in lower-income countries. This conjures a stark context for our world, wherein the majority of the 280 million people suffering from depression are deprived of receiving proper diagnosis, treatment, and care. Moreover, up to 85% of people with mental illnesses remain untreated.

Given the immense human impacts of climate change, mental health and well-being must be a focal point of climate action. Mental health issues, such as depression, could greatly hinder individuals from engaging in sustainable behaviors and taking action to mitigate global warming. In more dire cases, according to recent estimates an increase of 1 to 6 degrees Celsius could result in an additional 283 to 1,660 suicide cases in the U.S. alone. And avoiding these impacts equates to an annual economic value of up to $3 billion. This presents a clear need for nations to dramatically accelerate their responses to climate change and its impacts on mental health and well-being.

While we prepare for the future, our efforts to create a sustainable world must address this interconnectedness. Fostering greater collaboration among mental health professionals, environmentalists, policymakers, and other stakeholders will be crucial for success. Both health professionals and business entities have a responsibility to integrate mental health considerations into sustainable development initiatives. No only will this dual approach ensure that environmental policies and practices are put in place, but it will also prioritize the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants. Education and awareness play an important role in shaping future directions for mental health and sustainability as well. By focusing on the benefits of a healthy environment for mental well-being, we can collectively foster a sensitivity for the relationship between individual actions and broader environmental impacts. This will empower employees, organizations, and nations to make informed decisions and take responsibility for the mental health and the sustainability of communities around the world. Let’s all actively contribute to the well-being of the planet and future generations, while at the same time take care of our mental health and enhance our overall life satisfaction.