Before I begin, let me state unequivocally that I am not a mental health expert, and that none of this is intended to be professional medical advice; rather, it is merely an opinion based on my own experiences and those of others with whom I have spoken. If you’re having trouble with your mental health, the charity Mind is a great place to start if you don’t know where to turn. If you’re really having trouble, talk to your doctor or someone close to you to make sure you get the care and support you need.
When I originally started my career in ecology, I, like many others, paid little to no attention to the potential implications my “dream work” might or could have on my mental health or that of those around me.
I’d already done 3-4 years of volunteer work with a variety of organisations and local groups to expand my expertise in the industry when I started work in 2013, so late nights were nothing new to me. What I wasn’t expecting was to work a series of late nights over several months, sometimes with morning surveys thrown in for good measure and a lot of long-distance travel in between. My definition of “working late” was quickly altered.
My previous volunteer activities had been exactly that, voluntary! I decided whether I wanted to stay up late counting GCN or bats or get up early the next day to go to a reptile check or do some habitat management work. I quickly realised that I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I excitedly said “Of course, I already do” to the question “are you happy to work late hours and early mornings?” Unless you’re a gifted botanist or an expert in fauna that only comes out during more socially acceptable hours, late nights and early mornings are practically a certainty in ecology.
Most people know about the adverse effects of late nights and early mornings on our physical and mental wellbeing; but what about the other impacts of a career in ecology that people rarely talk about or acknowledge?
The subject of World Mental Health Week this year is loneliness. ‘Lonely,’ according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is “unhappy because you are not among other people.” Isolation from one’s social group (or ‘tribe’) has been linked to a wide range of psychological disorders (1) (2) (3), including depression and anxiety, alcohol abuse, sleep problems, and Alzheimer’s disease; and these ailments can cause people to become even more reclusive; it’s a vicious and self-perpetuating issue.
Loneliness in ecology can manifest because of many situations. For example, an assistant who works alone on site most days may feel alienated from the rest of the team. Similarly, an ecologist who recently became independent after working for a firm may find themselves feeling quite lonely on a daily basis compared to their previous position. Both situations may have negative consequences for that person’s mental health.
We all know someone who works for themselves or has recently started a business. If you haven’t planned ahead of time for support networks, it can be rather solitary. It can be difficult for that person to interact with people if they are lonely and their mental health suffers as a result. If you know someone who has recently gone freelance, consider checking in with them to see how they’re doing.
Further to this point, I believe that many people in our sector are all too eager to criticise others for seeking assistance, especially if the solution appears simple to them. The number of times I’ve watched someone publicly seek assistance online just to be told things like “Shouldn’t you already know that?” or “Why are you doing that job if you don’t know how to do it?” is shocking. I’m hoping that the majority of these scenarios are confined to the online realm. This kind of reaction serves only to further isolate that individual who might have really struggled to ask for help in the first instance; on an individual level we need to proactively question that kind of bullish approach which only exist to fuel one’s ego.
I can recall jobs that appeared simple at first but turned out to have potential constraints outside of my area of competence; it happens to everyone! We develop as professionals by asking questions. If you don’t know something, you ask someone who does, you learn how to do it with suitable assistance, you repeat the task, and finally, you become competent at it. As ecologists, we should actively support individuals and promote situations and cultures that actively encourage people to ask questions, no matter how simple they may appear. When you’re stuck on a project and don’t know what to do or who to call for help, it can feel incredibly lonely.
I believe we also owe it to those who are isolated at home and want to pursue a profession in ecology but are unable to do so due to, for example, a disability that prevents them from driving or having to care for a relative during “regular” office hours. How can we engage these individuals in ecology? How can we effectively close the gap and make our sector more inclusive?
Infrared cameras have recently been added to our emergence surveys. These cameras are positioned to cover all elevations and, when combined with full-spectrum static detectors, allow us to almost eliminate the need for individual surveyors. When emergence is detected, the survey tape is studied in detail back at the office, and call analysis is performed by qualified staff. On this basis, we plan to lower our dawn survey requirements dramatically, as bats leaving in the evening (which we can now clearly identify using IR cameras and statics) should be the same as bats returning in the morning. Those early am surveys to find access points will hopefully become obsolete.
Employees can spend more time with their friends and family and recover from work by reducing the number of surveys they complete in a week because cameras are covering the position they would have previously filled.
The IR cameras have also made us consider how we can be more inclusive as a team, and with the right training, we’re now considering how we can include people who are struggling to break into the ecology sector (for the reasons stated above) in our daily work by allowing them to review footage from the IR cameras (after being given the training to do so). That is one simple step we can take as a company and as an industry to become more inclusive.
So, how else can we, as a sector, assist in the fight against loneliness? I’ve given several actions below that you might consider using in your business or workplace to help:
- Create a WhatsApp group chat for the team to catch up on if you haven’t already. We have one where we talk about various (nearly completely!) non-work-related topics and have a good laugh together.
- Allow time for those who work alone on sites regularly to catch up with other team members. If you know someone who is struggling, offer to accompany them on-site (and, if you’re a manager, budget for this in your budgets — many hands make light work and all that!).
- Talk to friends who have gone freelance or launched a business to see how they’re doing and if they’re getting enough help.
- If people are working from home on a regular basis, attempt to set aside days for the team to get together and socialise. Even if it’s only once or twice a month, some people find that social engagement important. Check up on people periodically and inquire about their well-being!
- During survey season, give your employees at least one set evening off per week (I’m not suggesting they work the other four!) so they know they can go to that yoga class or take their kids to the park after work every Wednesday. This provides staff with some stability during a hectic period.
- If you haven’t already, start making the move to infrared cameras for your bat surveys. Just do it.
- Be helpful and kind if you notice someone asking for assistance. You have no idea how worried they are about the circumstance they’re asking for help with, and any comments that aren’t helpful could push them deeper into isolation.
Principal Ecological Consultant
1. Relationship between loneliness, psychiatric disorders and physical health? A review on the psychological aspects of loneliness. Mushtaq, R, et al. 9, s.l. : Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research, 2014, Vol. 8. WE01-WE4. doi:10.7860/JCDR/2014/10077.4828.
2. Loneliness and mental health among the elderly in Poland during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dziedzic, B, et al. 1976, s.l. : BMC Public Health, 2021, Vol. 21.
3. COVID-19-Related Loneliness and Psychiatric Symptoms Among Older Adults: The Buffering Role of Subjective Age. Shrira, A, et al. 11, s.l. : The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 2020, Vol. 28.