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Stress responses within the environmental movement: Enhancing our understanding of the activist experience

20 July 2012


Activists working in the environmental movement are subject to potentially negative impacts on their mental health due to general occupational stressors and factors unique to this population, including increased awareness of environmental issues and exposure to environmental degradation. However, burnout and secondary traumatic stress symptoms have not been examined in this population. The present study sought to uncover the nature and level of stress responses among environmental activists, as well as explore common coping strategies, resources utilized, and resiliencies within this population. A sequential, mixed methods design was implemented, and 26 adult workers in the environmental field were recruited via a snowball sampling method. These participants completed an online survey whereby the following constructs were measured: compassion satisfaction (CS), burnout (BO), secondary traumatic stress (STS), vicarious traumatization (VT), connectedness to nature (CNS), coping strategies, and perceived levels of social support. Follow-up interviews were conducted with 4 participants to further inform and illuminate the quantitative survey data. Results indicated that the environmental activists, on average, experience moderate to high levels of BO and STS, and moderate levels of CS. Correlational analyses and a multivariate analysis of variance revealed the following three factors to be positively related to higher levels of STS: younger age, witnessing a “significant amount” of environmental degradation throughout one’s career, and higher levels of CNS. Activists who endorsed more adaptive coping strategies tended to have higher levels of CS, and lower levels of both BO and STS. Also, those who reported higher levels of perceived social support from friends were more likely to have higher levels of CS and lower levels of BO. These last two findings suggest that coping strategies and perceived level of social support are in fact protective factors among this population of workers, similar to previous findings with other occupational populations. Survey and interview results suggested two main occupational rewards were professional relationships and engaging in work that is meaningful. Quantitative and qualitative data are combined together to create a comprehensive picture of the rewards and challenges that environmental activists face, and suggestions are given for the role that psychologists can play in sustaining activism.


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