Mental wellbeing & environmental sustainability

Our planet is facing and experiencing catastrophic environmental crises. The impact of unchecked climate change upon ecosystems, human and animal health and the potential scarcity of basic resources is beyond terrifying. A 2009 study stated that climate change is the greatest threat to global human health.  This crisis has been created by higher-income countries and yet less affluent countries are impacted the most. We are also documenting a dramatic collapse in biodiversity.  It is imperative that we make changes for environmental sustainability, in all aspects of our lives, and that we make these changes now. We have a moral responsibility as individuals, and as a profession, for the planet and all those that inhabit it. We must be good ancestors and consider the impact of our day-to-day activities upon future generations. Businesses not only have a social, environmental and moral responsibility to embrace sustainability practises: it is also essential for business resilience and provision of outstanding veterinary care into the future.

Mental wellbeing in the veterinary community importantly receives attention. We have become more aware of issues of mental wellbeing as a profession and are encouraged to be open about problems we experience and to recognise and adopt strategies to help us thrive. As professionals, we have a great burden to deal with already, especially with the pandemic, and fully opening our eyes to the environmental crises may seem like too much to bear. However, awareness and engagement with our natural environment, and the sustainability agenda, affords many benefits. This brief article touches on some of the science of why being ‘in nature’ makes us feel good and also discusses how sustainability issues can influence our wellbeing.

Sustainability and clinical practise

The veterinary team have a unique perspective of animal, human and environmental health and it is not surprising that vets are personally engaged with environmental matters.  A BVA survey in 2019 documented that 89% of Veterinary professionals wanted to embrace sustainability in the profession. Whilst this is the general feeling of the profession, it is uncomfortable to recognise that our daily clinical activities typically have a high environmental impact.  Healthcare without harm, an environmental charity, states that if healthcare were a country it would be the fifth-largest carbon emitter in the world.  Healthcare has a high environmental impact as it is highly energy-intensive, produces high carbon emissions from procurement of equipment, consumables and pharmaceuticals and generates high volumes of waste. For the sustainably minded member of the veterinary team, there can be a cognitive dissonance experienced due to the mismatch between, for example, efforts to be plastic-free at home and the number of single-use items utilised in the clinic. Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort from holding two different beliefs, values or attitudes, in this instance adopting different attitudes in different environments.

Are there other approaches that we could use that achieve the same result for our patient and yet have less of an impact? Single-use items are utilised due to a combination of infection control, convenience and lower cost. In 2018, Great Ormond Street ran a “gloves off campaign” to address inappropriate over-use of non-sterile gloves, re-educating key-point handwashing in routine patient care and avoiding transmission of hospital-acquired infections: this is better for the hospital, the environment and patient safety. Appropriate disposal of healthcare waste is governed by strict protocols and legislation; can we make any changes? Do a clinical waste audit and optimise the segregation and management of your waste – there is a great potential to reduce your environmental impact. The switch from single-use sharps bins, incinerated with their contents once full, to re-usable sharps bins, is a great example of something most of us have used believing it was a necessity, when in fact there is a safer, cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative of re-usable sharps bins. The human medical sector has been looking at environmental sustainability in healthcare for some time and there is now a growing number of resources in the veterinary medical sector too.  There is a wealth of resources on the Davies Veterinary Specialists website and Vet Sustain have also recently launched a Greener Veterinary Practice checklist. If you want to become more sustainable in your clinic, then chat with your colleagues, it is likely that others share your passions too.

One of the reasons I joined the Davies Veterinary Specialists team was because of the incredible work the Davies Green Group has done.  It is well documented that businesses with good environmental credentials have improved recruitment, wellbeing and retention of team members and these are yet further reasons why your management team, or you as a manager, should be receptive to these initiatives.

Wellbeing and the autonomic nervous system: psychophysiological stress recovery theory

Mental wellbeing and psychology are broad and complicated fields of which I am no expert, but I will touch on a few things I read that really resonated with me. There is a field of Environmental Psychology and a body of work within this field looking at why nature is restorative.  I was fascinated to learn that our autonomic nervous systems are affected by our environment, beyond just the conscious perception of being in a “nice place”. The wellbeing experienced from immersion in the natural world occurs due to stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Everyone is familiar with the fear, fright, flight response that occurs when there is stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system: a protective response in challenging or dangerous situations. We are familiar with the feeling of an adrenaline rush and the excitement or anxiety that comes with this.  We also learned in physiology about the function of the parasympathetic nervous system: facultative regulation of gastrointestinal and cardiac health etcetera. I hadn’t realised that the parasympathetic nervous system also influences mental wellbeing too. Just as the sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for a state of alert, the parasympathetic nervous system prepares the body for a state of calm.  Studies have shown that viewing natural environments enhances the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, measured by an increase in respiratory sinus arrhythmia. I think I have found a psychophysiological explanation for the deep sense of calm I feel in the centre of my chest when I can see the sea. Do you experience this in a natural environment too? The theory is that our nervous system responds positively to natural environments that would evolutionarily be beneficial to survival. There is increasing research documenting improved well-being and health are associated with decreased sympathetic nervous system activation and increased parasympathetic activation and having the right balance; knowing how nature influences well-being provides yet more evidence of the importance of protecting and restoring the natural world and spending time in nature as often as possible.

A further theory about the restorative effects of nature is the ‘attention restoration phenomenon’: mental fatigue is reduced and our ability to concentrate is improved by spending time in a natural environment.  Nature is inherently fascinating to us and the effortless distraction that it provides allows our brains to rest and recover. This includes auditory stimuli too: the sound of water is often used as an aid to relaxation. The repetitive, yet varied and irregular, sounds of nature have an inherently calming effect.


Eco-anxiety is a chronic fear of environmental and ecological disaster. It is not irrational and must not be denounced, in particular when contemplating the recent and ongoing environmental disasters faced globally, and in particular in the Global South. The counsellor or friend who offers just reassurance to the person affected with anxiety about the environmental crises does nothing to allay their worries, in fact it may heighten them. But what can we do? It is important to focus this energy on doing something positive and engaging with the issues we face: making changes in your day-to-day life and work, connecting with like-minded people and aligning your life and work with your values (Ro, 2018). There are many changes we can make in the veterinary clinic and a growing wealth of resources to help. Appreciating nature and spending time in nature improves our wellbeing and awareness of how wonderful the natural world is. Connecting with others and coming together, locally and globally, restores a sense of community. There is a positive low-carbon future to look forward to, we just need to make changes now and support each other to do so.

References available upon request.

Author: Zoe Halfacree
Small Animal Surgeon at Davies Veterinary Specialists and Working Group Chair, Vet Sustain

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