L&D’s role in sustainability in L&D – a well-being angle

The link between sustainability and well-being is clear, and here Jo Cook examines the evidence and urges L&D professionals to champion these vital areas into their strategy.

Work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 55% of all days lost due to work-related ill health

The global pandemic has increased the need for well-being support for working age adults. The UK Health and Safety Executive reported that in 2021/22 work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 51% of all work-related ill health and 55% of all days lost due to work-related ill health. The Nuffield Trust also reported that mental illness increased from just 27% in Q1 in 2007/08 to 51% in Q4 2020/21. 

What is sustainability?

The United Nations has Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which were agreed by 193 world leaders in 2015. “The Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.”

Those 17 SDGs individually support the well-being of so many people – from vaccinations to equal rights for women and girls, through to improving infrastructure and sustainable industry. With countries focusing on working towards these goals, they improve well-being for individuals while being cumulatively impactful for communities.

These goals need to be supported by organisations and L&D teams should have the opportunity to improve the well-being of employees and link this work to strategic business objectives.

World happiness

The World Happiness Report 2020 had a chapter that on sustainable development and human well-being, where it linked the above goals with findings from the Gallup World Poll on the quality of people’s lives. It highlights that there can be tensions between sustainability and well-being, using the example of the French Yellow Vests protests of 2018 that were triggered when additional fuel taxes were introduced. These taxes were “considered an effective way to induce more sustainable behaviour” but they put additional pressure on the lifestyles and purchasing power of people living outside of major cities. Despite the protests in France, analysis shows a correlation between the goals being actioned and well-being measures, with Nordic countries being top in both measurements.


The example of environmental protection positively impacting people’s well-being shows that people value nature and want to contribute to the sustainability of their environment. The United Nations Environment Programme published an article on World Mental Health Day in 2019, highlighting several links between mental health and the environment, including:

  1. Children become three to four times more likely to have depression at 18 if they had been exposed to dirtier air at age 12
  2. Urbanisation can increase isolation from nature, which in turn prevents people from harnessing the mental health benefits of being surrounded by natural environments
  3. A link between high traffic-related air pollution and anxiety levels.

In research about the link between planetary health and mental health the authors found that globally, the additional societal costs of mental disorders due to changes in climate-related hazards, air pollution and inadequate access to green space are estimated to be almost US$47 billion annually by 2030 and will continue to grow exponentially to US$537 billion in the following 20 years.

Sustainable well-being and the organisation

There is a disconnect between the vision of senior decision makers in an organisation and the roles and responsibilities for all managers and staff within when it comes to well-being. The CCLA Corporate Mental Health Benchmark reports that 66% of companies have published a formal commitment to mental health in a policy statement, but many lack effective processes to sustain that focus but only 34% have assigned day-to-day operational responsibility for implementing policies.

According to the Deloitte Mental Health and Employers report, L&D leaders need to highlight to their stakeholders that, organisation-wide early interventions, such as cultural change and raising awareness of mental health issues, provide the highest return, at £5.60 for every £1 invested. In times of shrinking budgets this investment seems wise.

Understanding that these global issues impact economies, work and lifestyles, and therefore the well-being and mental health of individuals, it’s ever more important for organisations to support the holistic health of their staff. An investment in people is an investment in the sustainability of a productive workforce.

Jo Cook is a live online learning specialist and well-being through creativity facilitator at www.LightbulbMoment.info