Avoiding burnout while working in sustainability

Rathbones' Matt Crossman gives an honest account of how he has learned to stay on top of his mental health as he heads into 20 years of responsible investing

Working in finance can be tough. While it’s not physically taxing (most of the time!), there’s a real mental strain that comes with working in an environment where everything, including your performance, is repriced every second.

And if you work in sustainable finance, you add having to stay on top of literally all the world’s problems. It’s a recipe for either a highly fulfilling career or a mental health disaster! Learning from my mistakes as I head into my 20th year in responsible investment, I humbly submit some corkers I’ve made over the years, so that you can avoid flaming out by early June.

See all Matt Crossman’s columns for ESG Clarity

Be patient

The problems are so big, and we can feel so small, so insignificant. Today’s culture is entirely conditioned to the instantaneous – whether it be the smartphone dopamine hit, or even the technology that makes life work. It all just happens and happens so fast. Be careful of using that pace to assess your policy engagement work or collective engagement with a high-carbon-impact company. That leads you to shift strategies every three months because you feel you aren’t getting immediate results, to quit that collective engagement effort after a year without trying to change it. This one’s more a long-term burnout play – the busyness and activity will fuel you for a bit – but after a while you wonder why on earth nothing is working and why you’ve had no impact, adding existential angst to our cocktail of stress.

See also: – Race to net zero: What about the grid?

You can’t care about everything all the time

You’re expected to have passion if you work in sustainability. And that’s a good thing. There’s only so many of these roles about and caring about your work helps drive you to make a difference. But if passion is the angel on your shoulder, the devil is guilt. Guilt for not being able to influence every issue that comes your way; guilt for not doing enough or caring enough. Instead of picking just a few of the world’s most intractable problems and working on them in a focused way, you can get sucked into taking to heart that you are unable to do anything about every bit of bad news you are force fed online. You aren’t designed to cope with every disaster reported in real time, so your mind and body will quickly give up – it’s just a question of which one throws in the towel first. Also, beware of becoming a martyr for causes in your community as well.

If, like me, you volunteer in your spare time, be careful to set boundaries. At one point I was helping to renovate and run a community house that provides shelter for hard-up residents, but it just wasn’t compatible with a full-time job in sustainability. I’ve struggled with guilt about not being able to help them more. But I’ve come to understand that it’s good to offer help – many people don’t – and it helps no one if we let that sort of guilt burn us out, making us unproductive both for those we’re trying to help and ourselves and our families. 

Eat well

You are first and foremost a creature, not just an intellect. That brain that you use to think about all the Sustainable Development Goals and climate scenarios and emission projections and taxonomies – it needs vitamins and nutrients to work well. A steady diet of conference food and coffee is guaranteed to deliver lethargy and guilt, and working late often leads to bad dietary habits, a one-two punch!

Don’t obsess with your ‘brand’, focus on spreading good

It’s weird mixing a passion and drive for sustainability in the private sector, because your driving force can get all muddled up with the career aspect of things. There’ll always be temptations to remain focused too narrowly on what benefits you directly. Instead, make sure you celebrate other’s achievements (we’re all in this together, after all) and focus on improving what you have in front of you.

Silently stalking LinkedIn profiles and cursing conference planners for not selecting you to chair that panel or have that ‘fireside chat’, all the while desperately fretting over your professional standing, is a hiding to nothing. In my experience, that’s your ego signalling that you need a holiday.

Get good sleep

If you really want to accelerate your burnout pathway, get a minuscule amount of rest. Read those profiles of CEOs in the Financial Times and mimic their schedule to put you in the fast lane to burnout. Doctors recommend seven to nine hours, and I’ve found it’s super important not to allow your day to mission creep into your nights. If you’re training for an ultramarathon and already regularly work way too late, cram in too much and then stare unblinking at your smartphone in bed doomscrolling: you’re off to a great start on your burnout journey. Don’t neglect your nights. Try to switch off.

Avoid going it alone

You don’t know everything, nor could you be expected to. But often as the nominated ‘expert’ in your organisation you can feel an inordinate amount of pressure to be the one always in the know. Trying to answer every query or help with any work that touches on sustainability can create an unscalable mountain. Often the answer is sharing your journey with others, outlining the path and the issues to think about so that others can find the answers themselves (or at least try).

Being a subject matter expert means you build a large network of friendships across both your business and the wider industry. That can be overwhelming, but it can also give you a perfect opportunity to be an ambassador and encourage others, who aren’t sustainability-focused, to be intellectually curious and investigate for themselves. Teaching someone to fish is always better than trying to pull in every net for everyone. Struggle endlessly with every last consultation, review, policy note, white paper and call for evidence entirely on your own, and you’ll find that overwhelming sense of panic welling up well before your first screen break of the day.

Push too hard and leave no margin at your peril

Sustainability is all about a balance between sinks and flows – making sure demand for stuff doesn’t outstrip the availability of our environment to replenish that flow. That’s a helpful principle for our work lives as well.

Just as sustainable economies meet today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, you need to remember ‘future you’ when allocating your resources today. Leave enough capacity spare and unplanned to respond to changing realities, as you would counsel for any plan for an uncertain future. And don’t forget to make time to recharge and go on holiday. And try not to read the OECD Governance Factbook by the pool… 

Have fun

This one might be tricky – but the best way to feel isolated, to really feel like what you are doing is just banging your head against a brick wall in endless frustration, is to have no fun. So make sure you’re not always that po-faced prophet of doom who sours every moment with a grim prediction of the apocalypse. People start avoiding your gaze and stop inviting you to parties, creating a doom loop rather than a beneficial circular economy.

Getting a hobby outside of sustainability, where you meet a wider range of people and enjoy the life you have now, is my number one pro tip.