Ecology and the Workplace

Presented as the key to the future for the protection of the environment, initiatives to adopt eco-responsible behaviors in the workplace are multiplying. Social support and empowerment are the levers of ecological change.

By Virginie Francoeur, PhD.

We can witness examples of initiatives on the website home pages of numerous companies: reductions in the use of plastic water bottles; deployment of centralized garbage cans; composting of food waste; awareness campaigns to reduce electricity use; encouragement of walking or cycling to get to work; etc. How can we support employees in adopting these eco-responsible behaviors?

Studies on the subject show that to change our individual behavior in regards to the environment, we must work with social determinants, like social support. And in this, managerial functions play an essential role. As a function of their own personal environmental beliefs, managers can support, aid and encourage employees to engage in ecological good deeds.   

Social support can take many forms1: instrumental (ex: deploy and use resources in such a way as to reduce pollution), informational (share knowledge and know-how about the environment), evaluative (provide feedback on environmental initiatives) or emotional (listen to others with empathy in the face of eco-anxieties).

A Serious Issue

These forms of support send a strong signal that the manager considers the environment to be a serious question and he or she is ready to go to great lengths in any description of tasks to resolve environmental problems. For the employee, that support is the reflection of a coherence between the environmental discourse of their managers, their decisions, and their daily actions.

A study published while I was working on my doctorate used data on 449 employees working in the service sector. It showed that employees who were supported generally responded with positive workplace behavior, such as eco-responsible behavior2.  

Social exchange theory, developed in the 1960s by American sociologist Peter Michael Blau, offers some interesting ways for us to understand the influence of social support in an environmental context. This theory suggests that a quality relational exchange between an employee and a member of their organization (ex: manager, immediate supervisor, colleague) generates a feeling of reciprocity (mutual benefit) superior to that of a purely economic exchange3.

Virginie Francoeur, PhD

This will to reciprocate that isn’t either regulated by a contract nor guided by individualism would be at the root of employees’ positive behaviors, which would become the driving force of collective action in the workplace4. This perspective presents a strong potential for deploying concrete environmental initiatives, since each gesture of support can have a bearing on the environment. It therefore isn’t necessary to resort to costly solutions to have a significant impact.

More recently, we conducted a study on the influence of empowerment on employees working in private enterprise5. Empowerment includes four dimensions related to work; skills (having all the capacities needed to achieve a good performance level); meaningful work (having tasks to perform that have a lot of significance in the eyes of the employee); decision-making power (making decisions in an autonomous fashion); and impact (having a lot of influence within the group)6.

Ecological Challenges

Our results show that employees who have the feeling or the perception that they are empowered are more motivated to perform their tasks in an ecological fashion. Here are examples of some of the required tasks: reducing the printing out of documents to zero, recuperating recycled paper to write memos; optimizing shipping programs; developing manufacturing procedures to avoid buying new equipment; etc.

To summarize, social support and empowerment are positive, crucial resources in terms of the ecological functioning of businesses, because they can generate a sense of mutual benefit and engender enlightened, eco-responsible behavior among employees. Companies, from upper management to immediate supervisors, can conceive and develop a culture of environmental support.

Human resources literature frequently deals with the importance of environmental training. Skills improvement and regular updates of environmental knowledge are primordial and essential. Businesses can follow the example of the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda, which put forward 17 goals to transform our world in a substantial and healthy way between now and 20307.

This new world framework, elaborated after three years of reflection with contributions from nation state members of the United Nations and thousands of actors around the world, is supposed to encourage worldwide environmental mobilization. Another interesting advocate is the Regroupement Des Universitaires8 (a grouping of university academics), of which I am a member. We take public positions in favor of the battle against climate change. Despite all these pertinent initiatives, obstacles can diminish employees’ commitment to the environment.  

Where this was written: La Croissanterie Figaro, fueled by a salade niçoise 

Music in my ears: Neil Young 

Please read: Pour une écologie du 99%, published by Écosociété

Sources:

  1. Eisenberger, R., & Stinglhamber, F. (2011). Perceived organizational support: Fostering enthusiastic and productive employees. American Psychological Association.
  2. Consult our study: Raineri, N., Mejía-Morelos, J. H., Francoeur, V., & Paillé, P. (2016). Employee eco-initiatives and the workplace social exchange network. European Management Journal, 34(1), 47-58.
  3. Blau, P. M. (1964). Exchange and power in social life. Transaction Publishers.
  4. Lavelle, J. J., Rupp, D. E., & Brockner, J. (2007). Taking a multifoci approach to the study of justice, social exchange, and citizenship behavior: The target similarity model. Journal of Management33(6), 841–866.
  5. Consult our study: Paillé, P., & Francoeur, V. (2022). Enabling employees to perform the required green tasks through support and empowerment. Journal of Business Research140, 420–429.
  6. Spreitzer, G. M. (1995). Psychological empowerment in the workplace: Dimensions, measurement, and validation. Academy of Management Journal38(5), 1442-1465.
  7. Consult the 17 objectives to save the world :  www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/fr/objectifs-de-developpement-durable/
  8.  Consult the Regroupement’s website : desuniversitaires.org/

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