Emotions in environmental responsibility work - what are they and how can they be managed?


Ten years ago, almost all the literature on emotions in organizational contexts began with the notion that rationality plays an over-emphasized role in organizational research, and there is not enough research on the role of emotions in organizational functioning. Since then, emotions have been understood to be a firm part of humanity and  therefore also organizations that are primarily formed of humans. Since the 1990s, emotions have attracted increasing interest in the business sector as well.

However, the role of emotions in responsibility work is a less documented topic. Responsibility work in companies and other organizations today can be seen as more important than ever. As climate change accelerates, organizations can either be part of it or take an active role in solving it. On the other hand, no organization is beyond the reach of climate change impacts.

Responsibility work has been identified as emotive, and often involves experience of working on the crossfire of different goals. Emotion management tools of responsibility work professionals have also been seen as a prerequisite for success in managing responsibility. Against this background, in my Master’s thesis, I began to study what emotions people who are actively promoting responsibility in their work experience and what tools they have to manage themselves and their feelings.

Work related conflicts

The environmental experts I interviewed identified many different levels of conflict related to their work. First, they described the conflicts at individual level that arise, for example, when within the organization, introducing responsibility aspects are seen as making unnecessary demands, or when collaborator sees work related to environmental responsibility as a job that is ”soft” work that anyone can do. On the other hand, at the organizational level, the interviewees described organizational structures that prevent environmental responsibility work, conflicts of interest between organizations, and irresponsible behavior of competitors.

” Interviewees described successes as being even more rewarding in their responsibility work than in other projects.”

The interviewees also identified contradictions at the societal level, which stemmed, for example, from the actions of the media and political figures. At the individual, organizational and societal levels, the topmost feeling expressed by interviewees was frustration. Contradictions were also seen in the background of other work related negative feelings, such as irritation. In addition, interviewees reported experiencing anxiety, sadness, anger, fear and concern, and many other negative feelings at work. So is environmental responsibility work labeled with bleak emotions and severe setbacks? Fortunately, the truth is not so clear. The interviewees also said that they feel emotions of joy, pride, hope and enthusiasm at work. Such positive feelings aroused, for example, by working with colleagues both within and outside the organization. In addition, the interviewees described successes as being even more rewarding in their responsibility work than in other projects.

Thanks to work, climate anxiety decreases

The interviewees’ experiences were also marked by a strong belief in the importance of one’s own work and by satisfaction with being able to work according to one’s own values. Paradoxically, when climate change threatens the physical and mental health of individuals, working for the climate is often experienced to be very meaningful, which in turn has a positive impact on the individual’s well-being. All interviewees invariably highlighted how their work suppressed feelings of general climate anxiety. Some interviewees saw the future as very hopeful. Interviewees reported that feelings of climate anxiety faded as they acted towards environmental responsibility and, on the other hand, because they met other people at work who were also actively engaged in actions to improve the climate situation.

”Based on the interviews, I have a multidimensional picture of the feelings that are experienced in environmental responsibility work, and the feelings expressed by the interviewees varied from side to side.”

It is known that reinforcing individual’s self-efficacy can relieve climate anxiety. Self-efficacy refers to individual’s self-assessment of his or her ability to act in such way that desired result is achieved. On the other hand, it has been stated that anxiety is easier to tolerate and reality easier to face when an individual receives emotional support from other people. Against these informations, it is easy to see why active action can really help with feelings of climate anxiety.

Emotions from side to side

The interviewees strongly identified themselves as responsible actors, but the interviews revealed that they also move between different identities depending on the context. The interviewees stated that they would adjust their ways of acting to the assumptions of the environment. Such a mobility of identities included, for example, the need not to express some aspects of one’s own agency, whether in work or private life. One of the interviewees also said that in certain areas he would present environmental and climate facts through economic figures in order to increase the impact of his speech on the public in question.

The interviewees also said that they control their emotions by consciously limiting their thoughts and content of their own work, and by controlling the amount of work in general. In addition, they described the development of “thick skin” and said that they had deliberately learned to leave some of the negative feedback on their work or the negative atmosphere surrounding it to their own worth.

Altogether, picture I formed ased on the interviews, I have a multidimensional picture of the emotions that are experienced in environmental responsibility work, and the feelings expressed by the interviewees varied from side to side. The emotional control techniques described by the interviewees, for their part, were largely pre-emotional, which has been seen as an effective emotion management strategy.

It is particuralry interesting how many of the interviewees experiences were similar to each other, even though they worked in different fields and in very different organizations. References to similar experiences are also found in earlier literature on different environments. So maybe there are some universal experiences in environmental responsibility work? The next step would be to look deeper into what kind of link there actually is between the emotions experienced in environmental responsibility work and the ways in which emotions are managed and how corporate social responsibility is implemented.


Mirka Laaksonen

Mirka is doing her Master’s thesis for the CICAT2025 consortium