Written by Astrid Leclézio
Nature has always been part of my life. It is my safe place where I have space to think and feel connected to the present moment and the environment. Research has also shown that spending time in nature brings multiple benefits to human wellbeing and mental health. Therefore, after completing an undergraduate degree in Psychology and in need of a break from life’s challenges, I couldn’t think of a better place to restore my mental health and wellbeing than the beautiful, magical Southern African bush. I lived in the bush for an entire year, where I completed a field guide course and volunteered at an organisation for carnivore conservation. If I concentrated only on the natural settings of my experiences, as they greatly supported my mental health and wellbeing. However, in remote areas, we do not only deal with nature and animals, but we also deal with people. Constantly being around the same humans brings complications and can be challenging. As much as I loved my experiences in those places and the wonderful people I have met and friendships I have created, I also faced some of the most psychological challenging conditions of my life.
Throughout my time in the bush at these different organisations, I came to realise how those places easily become toxic. I was even more surprised to find out that nothing was in place to help the people working in such environments. I have always had a desire to help people, which is why I studied psychology. Therefore, I offered my help when and where I could to the people I was working within the bush. At one of the places, I offered social support by talking to the students and staff working there about their experiences and struggles in their current social environment. I listened to them, found common suggestions of possible improvements they wished their current employer would make, and even talked to the managers about their concerns to try to put in place necessary changes to help the overall wellbeing of the people working in this place. I proposed a pilot programme to implement the extensive and practical list of solutions I had come up with. However, the managing team told me that implementing such changes was not possible as they did not want to spend the time and resources changing their current infrastructure.
It made me sad to see that the people devoting their lives and careers to protect environments and species, are the exact people who end up struggling without being provided adequate support. Urban environments typically have the infrastructure in place, like human resources departments and psychologists for staff to create ethical and safe working environments, yet this hardly exists in organisations in the conservation field. People at conservation organisations are dedicated to very large issues like protecting or studying imperiled species and ecosystems that humans have negatively impacted. Because the main goal of such conservation organisations is so huge and important, the wellbeing of the people working in conservation is often not prioritised.
In another organisation I worked at, there was a large issue with the lack of food choices provided for staff during meals, especially for people that had dietary restrictions or allergies, even though there was a lodge for guests onsite that provided a wide variety of food and meal options. Consequently, many individuals did not have decent food to eat when they were hungry and expressed that this matter had a significant negative impact on their wellbeing. Additionally, there were huge amounts of food being wasted every day. I brought up the issue with the managers and one of them suggested that I conduct a survey to have ideas of people’s concerns. I surveyed the staff, volunteers, and interns at the organisation about reasonable and affordable changes they would make to meals. When I submitted my survey results, the managers in charge of creating the staff menu did not handle this constructive criticism well, became upset, and chose to ignore me altogether, making me feel very isolated for the rest of my stay at this organisation.
Those experiences made me realise the lack of social support and issues with the treatment of employees in this field. Therefore, for my master’s research, I studied how the perceived social and physical environment impacted the wellbeing of people working in the African bush. I interviewed eight people who have worked or are still working in conservation organisations across Southern Africa. As expected, all participants shared how they enjoyed being in nature far from urban areas, where they had the ability to be connected to the planet and live in the moment. They explained that living and working in those environments brought them a deeper sense of connection with nature.
Breathing clean air, being less materialistic and being surrounded by people who had the same aspirations as them helped their wellbeing and brought meaning to why they chose this line of work. They explained that the lessons they learned during those experiences was something they would cherish for the rest of their lives, like a treasure that nobody could take away from them.
However, they also expressed that the main challenges they faced were related to their social and working environment. These challenges were the cause of numerous wellbeing issues and even the reasons why some people had left the bush. For example, even though working in remote areas of the bush where oneself is constantly in contact with people, some participants expressed that they could also feel lonely. It can be difficult to create long term friendships or even be able to build a stable relationship and eventually family.
Working in conservation is a tough lifestyle choice, in the long run, it can become difficult and tiring. As people work and live in the same place it can be challenging to find a work-life balance, especially when the working conditions are demanding. Individuals are expected to work all hours of the day, sometimes even being asked to do extra work when they are supposed to have time off or should be sleeping. Participants expressed that the lack of privacy, being forced to interact with people they would not normally be with, not being taken seriously by their managers and not having any recognition for their hard work was extremely difficult. Some participants even expressed that it is just accepted that the conservation or guiding industry has bad working conditions and you either accept it and sacrifice some parts of your wellbeing to follow this dream or change your course or career path. All individuals also shared that they thought they were the only one to feel the way they did.
Despite the fact that participants were working in different places and roles, there was a pattern in what they commented: the natural surroundings of their jobs were beneficial for their wellbeing, but the social and working environment was a constant struggle. Through my dissertation research, I discovered that there were many studies looking at the benefits of nature on the wellbeing of people, but very few studies considered the social aspect of it. Individuals working in conservation can be surrounded by some of the most beautiful natural places on Earth, but the social environment can literally be destructive to people’s mental health as most conservation organisations lack human resources departments and are not conducive to healthy work-life balances. Therefore, it is surprising that more research has not been done on the topic. I only recently discovered the Lonely Conservationist movement, and I was astonished to witness that many people have been repeatedly struggling with similar issues in very different places, yet so little resources are in place to help.
While it is nice to know that I am not the only one facing such struggles in the conservation field, it is difficult for me to comprehend how managers or organisations think it is acceptable to treat their employees in such ways and how pervasive this issue has become. It is incredibly sad that when we share our negative experiences at a place we always refer to it without saying its name, but when we share positive experiences we can share the name as loud as we want. As soon as things are not so bright anymore, we hide the name of the organisations and protect such organisations from anything damaging their name. I believe it is because at the end of the day we are aware that by sharing those names it is not the organisations that pay the price, but the species or environments we are trying to save. This is what breaks my heart and equally infuriate me at the same time.
So, how do we conserve conservationists? This is something I spend day and night thinking about. There is no one answer nor one solution. Conservationists are tackling such demoralizing issues like species and ecosystems declining, that there is a need for even more mental health. There is also a need to create a more supportive environment where people of different backgrounds can be heard and have a say in the matter, as conservation is not just restricted to the wealthy and elite. I believe that we are already on a good path to make the conservation field of work a better place.
Throughout my time in the bush, I kept asking myself if it would be possible to combine psychology and conservation and I am still figuring this out. I would like to be able to help conservationists and preserve their wellbeing. Help this community to continue the job they love, while making sure they are heard and something is done about their struggles. I would like for conservationist to have the option to receive the professional support they need before they reach the point of wanting to give up or burn out. Writing this post is challenging for me, as I do still feel like a lonely conservationist and I am no expert in the matter. Even calling myself a lonely conservationist or conservationist for that matter is difficult as I do not have the scientific background to truly study conservation. However, because of this community I am slowly starting to feel that I can call myself a conservationist even if it might look different to what most people expect conservationists to look like.
I won’t lie that sometimes I lose hope that I will ever achieve my goal of combining psychology and conservation. I am currently living in London; I have a degree in psychology but no working experience in it. Plus, I have working experience in conservation but given that I have no formal degree in this field it is difficult to find a job that is related to my specific interest. Recently, I am seriously considering doing a PhD on the same topic of my master’s dissertation, to deepen my knowledge and have more data on the issues conservationists face and what could be done to support them. However, it is not an easy decision or task to undertake. I am passionate about the topic and I know that this is what I want to do, but no matter how many people I try to contact to try and seek support or advice from, it feels like it is a never-ending road. I will do everything I can to help and bring more awareness to the issues conservationists face. I believe each and every one of us deserves to find our place in the industry and do what we love without having to sacrifice our well-being!
For more of Astrid, check out @titide_97 on Instagram