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05 Sep 2019
by Jane Burton

Sustainability in the workplace and its importance to tomorrow’s workforce

We are currently facing a fundamental transition in the way that we live and work. The rise of AI technology is increasing productivity and efficiency in the workplace while replacing humans in basic data processing. Meanwhile, we are experiencing life through a rapidly shrinking world; in a matter of seconds, we can be connected with almost anyone anywhere on the planet, and in a few hours we can travel halfway across the globe.

 

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Perhaps the most prominent change in our working environment, following the ratification of the Paris Agreement in 2016, is the transition to a low-carbon economy. This involves a shift away from carbon-intensive energy sources, substituting them with low-emission, ‘cleaner’ alternatives, such as wind and solar power. The high-carbon sources of energy that fuel our businesses and development are finite and our exploitation and reliance on them cannot be sustained moving forward.

Sustainability, wellbeing and the environment

Sustainability is the idea that we can meet human needs now, and in the future, whilst conserving and enhancing the natural environment. In recent years, the ‘sustainability’ buzzword has formed part of everyone’s vocabulary, be it corporate or consumer. Often investors and large enterprises use the term to look at the environmental impact of a product or service but sustainability also addresses the need to enable “all people to realise their potential and to improve their quality of life” (Forum for the Future). This is why sustainability and wellbeing go hand-in-hand.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has produced a set of wellbeing indicators which are used to measure society’s progress beyond GDP. As well as including factors like our relationships, governance, economic security and health, the ONS also consider the natural environment as an element of national wellbeing.

Furthermore, achieving good health and wellbeing, conserving the oceans and environment, and taking urgent action to combat climate change have all been identified as Sustainable Development Goals by the UN. It is therefore vital to recognise that achieving a sustainable workplace is only possible when approaching wellbeing and the natural environment holistically.

Sustainability in the workplace

More often than not, environmental sustainability can improve wellbeing at work. A 2018 Gallup study has shown that 85% of employees do not feel as though they reach their potential at work and do not feel engaged. Providing a range of growth opportunities to employees can positively impact wellbeing. Purpose is one of the most powerful drivers of engagement. An engaged employee will feel as though they are contributing towards something that matters to them and, when asked by the ONS, the “present and future conditions of the environment” is one of the top five responses.

Similarly, promoting sustainable behaviour at work can indirectly impact on wellbeing. For example, encouraging sustainable travel (eg walking and cycling) can improve our health, reduce stress and decrease air pollution.

A critical factor of wellbeing is economic security which itself is dependent on the switch towards a greener economy, decreasing the risk of dependence on stranded assets like oil and gas.

The future generation

With the echo of school climate strikers in the streets, we cannot ignore the demands of Generation Z who will begin to form the majority of our employee demographic. Generation Z, born between 1996 and 2012, are expected to make up 24% of the workforce by 2020.

Employers must not ignore what makes a desirable company to Gen Z or they risk losing a large proportion of the future work-pool. Cone’s 2017 Gen Z CSR Study: How to Speak Z found that 94% of this generation believe that companies should address urgent social and environmental issues and will consider the social purpose of a company when deciding where to work. Cycle-to-work schemes, switch-off campaigns and community litter picking are all opportunities that companies can provide to employees to give them a social purpose at a scale that has a large impact.

Aligning profit with purpose

The critical point to note is the importance of aligning profit with purpose. Sustainability addresses meeting the wants and needs of humans today, while also focussing on the preservation of the environment and ensuring the wellbeing of the future generation. As we are rapidly transitioning in the way we work, employers must identify and tackle the integrated qualities of sustainability or risk losing out on the value-driven future workforce.

The author is Jane Burton, final year geography student at the University of Exeter.

Jane is heading into her final year at the University of Exeter studying geography, with a strong passion for sustainability and environmental social responsibility. Jane has worked on waste management projects, green finance initiatives and has reported on Sustainable Development Goals. 

As a future Gen Z employee, she hopes to work for a company where she can help shape sustainable practices and take action to enhance the social responsibility of a business.

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