The burning issue: Avoiding ESG fatigue


Abigail Herron

How can we face existential problems and stay positive? Abigail Herron, Global Head of ESG and Strategic Partnerships at Aviva Investors contemplates simple steps to protect momentum and avoid burnout.

  • How looking at the world through a sustainable finance lens can be energy sappin
  • How checking progress against worthwhile goals can be reassuring in the face of adversity
  • Recent legislative progress on climate and natural capital, and institutional commitments to ensure investees become better stewards

How can you enjoy the beach when you know the climate trajectory will force millions into becoming climate refugees, or an ice cream when the heat is decimating prospects for pollinators?

These questions are at the heart of the conundrum faced by people working in sustainable finance. Everyone is exhausted by COVID-19 and the unfolding of another tragically wasteful conflict, but there are other specific challenges for ESG specialists too. Work is evolving rapidly: there are more complex problems to tackle, new regulations and a raft of metrics to assess. The responsibilities keep ratcheting.

Meanwhile, the profession is getting a lot of attention. Investors, trustees, NGOs, special interest groups and policymakers all want more: more on what investee companies are monitoring, more evidence on impact, and more on what it could mean for returns. There are many wanting to join the conversation, but alongside the opportunity to air views comes the chance of being hit by accusations of greenwashing. It’s a lot to juggle.

That’s why burnout is real. If knowledge about the state of the world bubbles up every time you walk in the park and see baked earth and a lack of nature, or head down the high street and see retailers with every ESG issue under the sun in their supply chains, it’s difficult to enjoy quiet moments with family and friends. This is about more than stress in busy people; recognising the precarious state of the world can involve feelings of despondency or even despair.

Burnout comprises three components – exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. In a state of exhaustion, you become unable to concentrate or see the big picture; essential skills in the ESG world. Even routine and previously enjoyable tasks seem arduous. Cynicism manifests itself as feeling detached and negative about your projects and workplace instead of collaborative and upbeat. It’s also infectious. Inefficacy leads to paralysis, a dramatic decline in productivity and nagging worry that success is impossible.

But there are solutions. Firstly, recognising each person has a unique mix of responsibilities is an important step towards making life a little bit easier for everyone.

How we balance these elements is key. It might mean making space to talk and process complex feelings with others in the same field. It might mean taking advantage of flexible working, freeing up time for relaxation alongside work: time for enjoyment and time for purpose, when parents can parent, carers can care and those with an appetite to mentor can guide others along the way.

Immersing ourselves in nature can also bring a sense of perspective, as so many working in the field already appreciate. Enjoying the calm of a walk, especially with a canine companion, the coolness of a wild swim or the understated stoicism of a tree can be helpful, while we double-down on efforts to ensure no-one is excluded from these simple benefits. Embedding them into our daily routine, where possible, surely makes sense.

It is also worth taking a step back to think about the role change plays in the long game. At the beginning, it tends to be incremental. Small changes accumulate, they contribute to building momentum, then all of a sudden you reach a tipping point and everything starts to look different. We need to keep this in mind when problems seem insurmountable, work is gruelling and the pace of progress feels too slow.

With this in mind, it is worth checking in to celebrate the milestones we have already reached. There is change underway on several fronts, as these diverse touchpoints show.

The legislative agenda around climate is shifting. In 2022, the US has announced a bill with $375 billion of investment pencilled in for climate fighting;1 the EU has pledged to pivot away from fossil fuels faster with investment chanelled through RePowerEU,2 and UK lawmakers are pressing the government for greater rigour and transparency with net-zero plans.3 Delivery is not assured, but ambition is growing and the renewed focus on the end-goal must be welcomed.

Awareness of the need to reverse biodiversity loss is also stepping up. In the UK, the introduction of a legally binding target to reverse nature loss by 2030 is being discussed,4 and more intensive coverage of the power of regenerative agriculture and nature recovery shows the messages are starting to land. It is a modest start, but the issues are essential to confront in tandem with the climate crisis. The next step is to ensure the broader principles are properly reflected in our agriculture and planning systems.

It is also encouraging to see more asset managers and owners concentrating on ensuring investee companies become better custodians of precious antibiotics that underpin all modern medicine. This is timely: although COVID-19 is viral, reports suggest the danger of antimicrobial resistance has increased. Many COVID patients have been given antibiotics to stave off secondary infections, but failing to manage these essential treatments will store up life-threatening problems for the future. It is not too late to intervene in health settings and agriculture – where the scale of the issues is even greater – as drug-resistant bacteria continue to evolve.

These varied examples bring home the importance of wanting something better. There are deep-rooted issues in many parts of the global economy: we can’t ignore that. We cannot ignore the prospect that conflict delays decision-making either. But the mood feels urgent, and that is something powerful to harness.

Trying to ensure finance enhances, rather than diminishes, prospects can feel overwhelming, but it is worth sustaining ourselves enough to give us the energy and motivation to strive for a better future. As momentum builds, we can take solace in playing our part in making vital changes to the systems that shape economies and societies.


[1] ‘Analysis: Democrats’ bill will make mark on climate, healthcare costs’, Reuters, August 7, 2022
[2] ‘REPowerEU: affordable, secure and sustainable energy for Europe’, European Commission, 2022
[3] ‘Court rules UK plan to hit net zero target for emissions too vague’, Financial Times, July 18, 2022
[4] Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, ‘Delivering on the Environment Act: new targets announced and ambitious plans for nature recovery’, GOV.UK, March 16, 2022

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