Although many chief sustainability officers are feeling burnt out, there is a sense of shame in admitting it, according to a global survey of sustainability executives in 2023 by recruitment firm Acre. For many, it is taboo to express feeling overwhelmed in the lead sustainability position. Image: Dark Light2021 / Unsplash

Chief sustainability officers are burning out. Has the role become unsustainable?

A growing number of pressures is pushing CSOs to the limit as the sustainability function expands and evolves. Eco-Business investigates burnout among sustainability leaders and asks if there is a remedy.

The people hired to stop the corporate world from ruining the planet are in danger of harming themselves in the process. A troubling number of chief sustainability officers (CSOs) are finding that the job has become unsustainable.

The CSO of a Singapore-headquartered luxury brand recently quit because he had “burnt out”. He had felt unsupported by senior management who lacked a clear understanding of how to define sustainability and therefore his role. Everything vaguely sustainability-related ended up on his to-do list. Even tasks that weren’t part of his job scope, he told Eco-Business on the condition of anonymity. 

The term “burnout”, though not yet classified as a medical condition, is defined by global health organisations as an occupational phenomenon that is associated with chronic workplace stress that has not been well managed.

While the Covid-19 pandemic elevated the importance of sustainability in the boardroom, and companies have had to respond to growing regulatory pressure to improve their environmental and social credentials, not all firms have given their CSOs the resources they need to do their jobs without getting seriously overstretched.

The job is a marathon, not a sprint. But we’re being asked to sprint a marathon.

Anita Neville, chief sustainability and communications officer, Golden Agri-Resources

A global census of more than 2,200 sustainability professionals by recruitment firm Acre found that one-third of the respondents were very or moderately dissatisfied with the resources they have access to, while executives across all business sectors expressed serious doubts that they could meet their sustainability commitments with the resources at their disposal.

Eco-Business spoke to CSOs who work for multinational and local firms in hospitality, financial services, real estate, transport and palm oil in Indonesia, Hong Kong and Singapore to understand the pressures of the job and why CSOs are increasingly susceptible to burnout.

Most CSOs interviewed for this story opted to withhold their identities.

Unsupported and isolated

The backlash against environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles in business – which started in the United States but is spreading eastwards – and the pushback against corporates for greenwashing and greenhushing has pressured CSOs to justify their existence as the job has evolved beyond compliance and “box-ticking”. But without sufficient support from senior management to do the real work of transforming a business, CSOs say they are struggling to keep their heads above water.

“If all of these pressures fall on one individual, the risk of burnout is very real,” according to the former CSO of a hotel group, who said the role left him feeling isolated. Although Acre’s census finds that more resources are being allocated to sustainability teams – albeit at a slower place in Asia than in Europe or North America – in some companies this is not happening fast enough. 

If the transition takes too long, the CSO position will become unsustainable. This is why a lot of companies are finding that they are having to spend more on consultants,” he said. “CSOs are unable to cope with the workload as the discipline expands.” 

But even companies that are staffing up to support their CSOs are struggling to find the right people, say some executives. “Everyone wants to be in sustainability, but most do not have the professional skillset,” says a Hong Kong-based CSO. “Turnover is very high. Competence greenwashing is a problem.”

The ever-expanding job

There was a time when corporate sustainability was focused on environmental stewardship, labour, health and safety. It is shifting to risk management and value generation, and new disciplines are fast emerging. The latest metric by which companies must measure themselves is biodiversity, as CSOs grapple with how their businesses impact nature.

“Sustainability is getting wider and deeper. Unless you put boundaries around it, sustainability can be everything in the business,” says Anita Neville, chief sustainability and communications officer of Golden Agri-Resources, a Singapore-headquartered palm oil company that manages 500,000 hectares of plantations in Indonesia.

Neville, who has worked in sustainability for 30 years, sympathises with executives who are taking on the CSO role without a real understanding of what is required and how the role is changing. “I can understand them feeling overwhelmed by the breadth of things that fall under their remit. We are now under so much pressure to do as much as we can, as fast as we can, everywhere we can.”

The Australian says that she can always see in her peripheral vision “things that are not done”. But she stresses the need for CSOs to prioritise. “We have to be prepared to let some things go to focus on what matters most. And we have to have confidence in those choices or else risk things getting on top of us.”

Sustainability leaders are susceptible to burnout because of the moral nature of the role. We find it hard to know when to stop.

CSO, Singapore-based financial services firm, speaking on the condition of anonymity

An expert in everything

Sustainability is a broad, complex, ever-changing field. CSOs fret that colleagues in other departments expect them to know everything about every aspect of the discipline. This makes it hard to manage expectations internally, particularly for CSOs who are new to the company. 

“When I was hired, my colleagues assumed that the job was done – that sustainability had been ‘fixed’ as soon as I’d arrived. The opposite was true. The work was only just beginning,” says the CSO of a Singaporean finance group. “The expectation that we know everything and can hold the hand of every function [through sustainability programmes] is crazy. It is really stressful as you’re multi-tasking across multiple areas of the business.”

Being told how to do your job adds to this stress. “Sustainability is an area where everyone has a view on where you should be focusing your efforts – particularly on social issues,” says the head of sustainability for a Hong Kong transport firm.

A big part of the job is staying relevant as the world changes. “It’s hard to do the actual work while keeping up the industry developments,” says the finance firm CSO, who has more than 20 years experience in sustainability, which is rare in the sector. An analysis of the largest listed firms in Asia in 2023 found that only about 27 per cent of CSOs in Malaysia and 17 per cent of CSOs in Singapore have both ESG-related qualifications and prior working experience in the field.


As the sustainability discipline matures, companies are building standalone sustainability functions, typically led by a CSO who reports directly to the CEO. In companies where sustainability is new, CSOs tend to be parked in other departments. This is particularly common in Asia, where most sustainability heads emerged from the communications function and double-hat.

“People who take on two jobs often volunteered for the sustainability position because they are passionate about “doing good”. But doing two jobs takes its toll over time, particularly since being passionate about something means you are more likely to take on more than you can handle,” says one Hong Kong-based CSO.

The pressures of double-hatting are reflected in a growing preference among sustainability professionals for interim or contract roles, Acres’s census found. “Many professionals view contracting as a strategy to circumvent dual-hatting in sustainability, since contractors typically can focus on a single project,” says Tanith Allen, director of sustainable business for Acre in the United Kingdom.

There is a danger that the stress of the CSO-hybrid role spreads. Allen says that in some cases, the duties of one of these roles are delegated, which results in a “trickle-down effect of professionals becoming overworked due to inadequate role allocation.”

Seen but not heard

The CSO is a highly visible role, but being seen does not guarantee being heard. The most stressful thing about the job is trying to persuade people to get behind the sustainability agenda, says the CSO of a financial services company in Singapore.

This is particularly difficult in companies where the head of sustainability does not have a direct reporting line to the chief executive. “There are limits to what can get done and how quickly,” says the Hong Kong-based sustainability head at a Singaporean family-owned real estate business. “In family businesses, if you don’t have the support of the owner, the job is like pushing water uphill. I once tried to tell my colleagues in marketing to stop giving out so many leaflets as it was wasteful. I was told: ‘What right do you have to ask me to do that?’”

Sustainability teams that do not have a C-suite leader are in a “culturally weak” position, and often lack the skills to interact with leadership and communicate the commercial value of the function, says Liam Salter, Thailand-based chief executive of environmental consultancy Reset Carbon. Sustainability practitioners tend to come from technical backgrounds, and are not regarded as senior enough within the corporate hierarchy to get things done, he says.

Even if you have a broad level of support, you’re always the project manager and task master. You have to keep everyone in check, which is difficult if you don’t have air cover,” says the sustainability head at a Singapore finance firm. 

CSOs who rush in to do too much too quickly will burn out. You have to take the time to understand the corporate culture.

Head of sustainability, Hong Kong real estate firm

Chief Anti-Sustainability Officers

This applies mainly to a company’s first CSO – which in Asia, is most CSOs. When a CSO is hired, they’re tasked to transform systems that have been entrenched for decades. This often results in the emergence of a “Chief Anti-Sustainability Officer”, typically a powerful player in the organisation who is resistant to the changes proposed by the CSO, says John Whitfield, the head of sustainability business for Acre in Europe.

These individuals may perceive change as a personal affront to the work they’ve dedicated years to, which is a natural human reaction to change,” he says. CSOs need good change management skills to work with these people, however these skills are rarely in job descriptions, Whitfield notes.

CSOs who rush in and try to do too much too quickly will inevitably burn out, says the sustainability head of a Hong Kong property firm where she has worked for more than a decade. “You have to take the time to understand the culture, particularly in conservative Asian firms,” says the executive, noting that it took her more than two years to get her colleagues on the right side of the sustainability agenda. 

Hidden value

The value that sustainability brings a company isn’t always obvious to senior management. This is a constant source of stress for CSOs who fret about budget cuts.

“Winning sustainability awards or rising up the Dow Jones Sustainability Index is never going to convince a chief financial officer (CFO) that you bring value to the company, because it does not affect the share price,” says the sustainability head at a Hong Kong real estate firm. “Our budget is still among the first to be cut when times are tough, because the CFO cannot see how we make money for the business.”

In companies where senior management salaries are not linked to sustainability targets – which is most companies in Asia – it is particularly hard for CSOs to prove their worth.

Guilt-tripped do-gooders

A problem with struggling CSOs is that they are suffering in silence. Acre’s census finds that there is a sense of shame in admitting to being burnt out – for many, it is taboo to express feeling overwhelmed, perhaps because of the nature of the function. “Sustainability leaders are susceptible to burnout because of the moral nature of the role. They find it hard to know when to stop, because there is always something important that needs fixing,” says the sustainability head at Singapore finance firm.

Liam Salter of Reset Carbon adds that some CSOs, for instance in the fashion sector, struggle to say “no” and the list is so long for how to approach a problem, and they are spread so thinly – often just two or three people doing jobs that require much larger teams – that they “don’t have time to do anything.”

Louisa Noble, group sustainability director for consultancy Sedgwick Richardson, said she recently met a sustainability team that seemed “a bit defeated”, because they were spending so much of their time focused on the requirements of ratings agencies, client requests and reporting standards. Creating “real-world impact” was beyond them. “It seems like they could always be guilt-tripped into doing more – people in sustainability are naturally ‘do-gooders’ – but they need more support,” she says.

Beating burnout

Sustainability is still a nascent function. Defining the CSO role is a work in progress. But there are ways of making the job more manageable. 

The convergence of sustainability reporting frameworks – the most commonly used global standards have promised to work closer together – will lighten the reporting load for CSOs. This consolidation cannot come soon enough. According to one CSO, ESG reporting season, which can last for three months to half the year, with an intense flurry before it is published, “sucks the life out of you.” Artificial Intelligence could soon help CSOs who dread reporting season, although one sustainability head noted that AI will be of limited help, as most ESG data is buried in silos of the company and not published online. 

There are traits that CSOs need to survive. “The job requires resilience, patience and pragmatism,” says Anita Neville, who has worked for eight years as a sustainability head at the same company. “The job is a marathon, not a sprint. We’re being asked to sprint a marathon. But we can’t go fast on everything all of the time – it’s just not possible. We have to be prepared to make tradeoffs – and that’s hard when we know that everything in sustainability is important and must get done.”

Being clear about where the priorities lie will help to galvanise support internally, Neville says. “You need to be an advocate, a cheerleader and a nag. Occasionally, you need to be manipulative – to move people into the direction that you want,” she says, adding that heat from non-governmental organisations and civil society can be used to a CSO’s advantage.

Sustainability leaders tend to be passionate about their work, and that makes it hard to compromise. But CSOs have to accept that there will be trade-offs and “celebrate the little wins,” says the Hong Kong head of sustainability at a transport firm.

Building a peer network is critical. “The job gets slightly smaller once you leave the office and realise that you are not alone and share the same problems,” says the Hong Kong CSO of a real estate firm. “We get together regularly. We suffer together, we laugh together.”

Making time for self-care is also vital. Almost every CSO Eco-Business spoke to said they exercise before work. Some practice mindfulness exercises. “You need to learn to separate what you can control from what you can’t,” says the CSO of a Singapore finance firm.

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