From workplace health and safety to employment branding, climate change is an issue for every organisation. It will also mean organisations have to be more prepared for crises that coincide.
The pandemic has offered a tantalising glimpse of what our environment might look like if the world succeeded in immediately reduced carbon emissions. During a single month of quarantine in China CO2 emissions fell by a quarter.
Globally, the impact of the quarantine on traffic reduction was even more dramatic. The International Energy Agency reported that nitrogen dioxide pollution and particulate matter from vehicle exhausts fell to half 2019 levels by the end of March.
But as life returns to something approaching normality, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are on the rise again. Climate scientist Corinne LeQuere of the Global Carbon Project described the temporary reduction as “like you are filling a bath with water and you turn off the tap for 10 seconds.”
Nevertheless, there seems to be a seachange in thinking around our relationship with the environment and the other creatures that share it. Businesses are more vociferously urging governments to respond to the trauma of the pandemic by implementing policies that tackle the climate crisis as well as getting the economy back on its feet.
In a letter to the federal government in May, the Business Council, the Property Council and the Australian Energy Council among others, stated:
“Australia faces a public health emergency with immediate economic impacts as well as longer-lasting global economic pain. Beyond the pandemic, Australian prosperity also depends on dealing with other long-term challenges, including the transition to net zero emissions.”
The message is clear. How we choose to move forward after COVID-19 will have a big impact not only on our climate, but our health and wellbeing.
There are two parts to this. The first is the long term, irreversible ramifications of rising temperatures. But this has a secondary effect. Rising temperatures mean it’s more likely we will face more natural disasters and hazards, and more likely that two or more crises will coincide.
It needs to be remembered that it was only a matter of weeks prior to the outbreak of coronavirus that much of Australia was shrouded in smoke due to catastrophic bushfires. For businesses and HR, this is a workplace problem. One for which they need to be prepared for.
“In many ways, what is happening now with the pandemic shows how we are being pushed to work in different ways,” says Renata Musolino, OH&S information organiser at the Victoria Trades Hall Council.
In simpler times, WHS was about things organisations could control, such as chemical containment in a factory, says Musolino. “But the climate and coronavirus have highlighted there are really large risks to working people that employers cannot control but they will nevertheless have to react to.”
Musolino advises there needs to be clearly articulated and agreed policies developed in consultation with the workforce about what will happen and when it will happen, as well as monitoring workplace conditions and employee health.
Amanda Lamont is a former director at the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience and co-founder of Australasian Women in Emergencies Network. She says disaster preparation has become more urgent than ever with the prospect of multiple emergencies coinciding.
“Things that businesses need to consider include when they are operating in multiple locations that there are leaders on the ground who know how to enact disaster plans. Workforce planning should anticipate how emergencies could impact the number of workers available, and resource allocation, including how employees are to be deployed to other areas should there not be adequate staffing due to illness, death or travel restrictions.
“Disaster training for staff is another component to ensure that employees are equipped to take on additional duties during emergencies,” says Lamont.
“What COVID-19 has done is add complexity to any disaster that happens,” says Andrew Gissing, general manager at Risk Frontiers, which provides risk management and catastrophe modelling data to the Asia-Pacific region.
“If a big flood happened now, there is the issue of vulnerable people needing to be evacuated and being reluctant to leave their homes because of a pandemic,” he says.
This is exactly what happened in New York in June when the city’s authorities found their usual strategies for protecting people against heat-related health problems were in direct conflict with their strategies for containing the virus. While temperatures hit 90 degrees, all of the city’s spray parks and air-conditioned cooling centres were closed to slow the spread of the virus.
The health impacts of the pandemic are well-known. But working long hours in increased temperatures also affects physical health. For organisations that have workers outdoors, this is an issue they have to address.
“Our research found that some 20 per cent of heatwave deaths are workplace related and therefore potentially preventable. Climate change is modifying the environments that businesses are operating in and businesses need to factor climate change risk into their workforce planning if they are not already doing so,” says Gissing.
Heatwaves also result in lost productivity and workplace absenteeism, he says.
“In the future, businesses may have to alter outdoor work practices or automate processes currently reliant on manual labour.”
Air-conditioning, which, in an insidious spiral, simultaneously increases carbon emissions while ameliorating its ultimate effect on our bodies, will only become more crucial in the future. A 2015 study published in Nature Climate Change surveyed 1,726 Australian workers and found 70 per cent performed less efficiently due to heat. This has an estimated cost to the economy of $7.92bn a year in lost productivity. Heat stress is also linked to fatigue and poor concentration levels, and often affects sleep.
As well as being hit hard by COVID-19, older people are also particularly vulnerable to extreme heat effects of climate change – and Australia has an ageing population.
Ollie Jay from the Faculty of Medicine and Health and the Sydney Environment Institute at Sydney University says, “Older people are susceptible because their capacity to tolerate hot temperatures becomes diminished, and the data show that women in the workplace tend to suffer a bit more than men.”
Jay, who is an associate professor in Thermoregulatory Physiology, says in his work with public sector organisations he’s found that workplace health and safety recommendations are often based on conventional wisdom rather than scientific evidence.
“People think that as long as you give someone water, they’re fine. But that’s wrong; hydration is only part of the issue and there are a number of ways that you can experience heat illness.”
It’s not just people’s physical health that is at issue. Just as the pandemic saw increased levels of anxiety and loneliness, the existential dread of what the future holds of unmitigated climate change is having mental health impacts on many Australians.
The Australian Medical Association has called climate change “a health emergency” and stresses the need to raise awareness about the link between climate change and mental health to encourage people to express and share their anxiety with family and friends and in workplaces.
While HR is tasked with planning for and protecting its people impacted by climate change, the context in which it operates sets the tone. Many organisations, particularly large multinationals, face growing pressure – from customers and internal and external stakeholders – to show how they are responding to climate change challenges.
“People will be demanding to see that companies are taking care of the environment and there will be greater pressure for HR to focus not just on employee wellbeing but community wellbeing and the wider society.” – Catherine Bell
Criticism has come especially from younger generations, the talent pool of the future. Deloitte’s 2019 Millennial Survey revealed that protecting the environment is their top concern and that they “will show deeper loyalty to employers who boldly tackle the issues that resonate with them most, such as protecting the environment”.
The post-pandemic workforce in general is questioning values and priorities, says Catherine Bell, director of Bell Training Group. She thinks smart employers will recognise that there has to be openness to talk about how companies redefine themselves and reset strategy in the light of the climate and pandemic threats.
“People will be demanding to see that companies are taking care of the environment and there will be greater pressure for HR to focus not just on employee wellbeing but community wellbeing and the wider society,” says Bell.
Christopher Wright, professor of Organisational Studies at Sydney University, says corporations are acutely aware of the benefits of publicising their green credentials and of the reputational damage that can ensue if they don’t.
In a major research project on business responses to climate change, Wright’s team interviewed professional service firms, banks, insurance companies, airlines and big global manufacturers to find out about their approach to CSR as it relates to climate change.
“Companies try to manage these increased expectations that employees have around the climate by placing a big emphasis on building climate change initiatives to attract talent, engage the workforce and sustain the right messaging. We found the dominant motivation for doing so was reputational risk,” says Wright.
However there is a constant tension between environmental sustainability and maximising growth and profits that are driven by a hydrocarbon economy, says Wright. Those tensions come into sharp focus when a company’s clients are big contributors of greenhouse gas pollution.
“Particularly in financial and professional services you have employees saying: ‘We’re not comfortable advising the coal industry because they are part of the problem and I’d rather not work for them.’ But the firm needs these big clients, so they do things such as set up internal ethics committees to have these conversations with employees; they change their fleets to hybrid cars or switch to solar providers,” says Wright.
If the perception is that a company is inauthentic about its commitment to tackling climate change or simply lies about its eco credentials, they risk opening themselves up to accusations of ‘greenwashing’ and suffering lasting reputational damage.
The way ahead
It’s not all doom and gloom. Some commentators see the way societies have reacted to the problems posed by climate change as an opportunity to reassess the way we live and work. Don Albert, a Fulbright Scholar and founder of Climate Change Cities, is one of them.
Writing before the pandemic, he said, “It is foreseeable that businesses will want to decrease their reliance on centralised workforces and relocate to places less prone to heatwaves, bushfires, cyclones, floods, droughts, and inundation from the sea”.
Albert envisages new places of work that are more holistic: attached to co-living spaces, with childcare and social support networks, closer to public transport, with opportunities for urban farming and local food production, localised solar-power generation and so on.
Businesses moving their headquarters out of the big cities – or doing away with headquarters all together – has become more likely because of the pandemic. The quarantine helped to ‘normalise’ remote working for a lot of people and the signs are that many won’t want to go back to the way they worked before.
An AHRI Pulse Survey found only 27.1 per cent of employees were comfortable returning to the workplace. In London, 13 per cent of businesses polled for the London Chamber of Commerce in June said that the ditching of the corporate headquarters and working from home would now become standard practice, reports The Guardian.
Recent Australian Census data shows that 9.2 million people typically commute to work each day. If people worked from home an average of one day per week, there would be 1.8 million fewer commuters on the roads and on public transport. The impact on the environment is obvious.
But as mentioned at the beginning of the article, early indications are that pollution levels are rising again. As employees return to work they are opting to use their own cars in increased numbers because of anxiety over social distancing on public transport.
This isn’t just an issue for public transport companies looking at managing passenger flow and separation. Businesses need to consider staggering work hours to reduce peak transport demand – an idea that congested cities around the world have toyed with before the pandemic.
Businesses also need to consider alternative commuting options such as cycling and walking, both of which became more popular during the lockdown, and something that federal and state governments would like to see continue. Transport for NSW, for example, are encouraging people to walk or cycle for short trips as part of a campaign to reduce congestion and improve air quality.
An appetite for lifestyle changes such as in the case of transport clearly exists among the public in Australia, nearly three-quarters of whom see climate change as a problem for them personally according to the ABC’s Australia Talks national survey.
If it feels like a pivotal moment in Australia’s response to climate change, it’s because it is. Time is running out as the scientists warn that rising temperatures present a threat to human existence. If the economic recovery fails to put sustainable development at its core, the pandemic could be viewed as a warning that went ignored.
This article originally appeared in the August 2020 edition of HRM magazine.
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