Meet our alumni leading the workplace wellbeing revolution

By Scott Ellis-Flint, Tom Pastro and Angela Kwan

Wellbeing in the workplace is still a relatively new concept, which means it requires fresh thinking. Enter, our graduates, who are stepping up to make workspaces happier and healthier.

We spoke to the winner, and two finalists, of the 2019 Genesis prize, about the work that their organisations are doing to transform wellbeing in the workplace.

A quiet place

Scott Ellis-Flint (MCom '16 BA '14) is the co-founder of Nook, the winner of the 2019 Genesis competition. Nook aims to provide a literal quiet space for open plan office workers to make phone calls, get away from office noise or just take a quick breather.

At Nook, we’re here to make open offices better places for people to work. More than 70 percent of workplaces are open plan and we spend more than a third of our lives in them. Unfortunately, these environments are not always conducive to productivity or mental health, as recent research shows.

According to a 2018 Harvard Business School study:

  • we are 15 percent less productive in an open office environment, as opposed to a traditional closed office plan
  • open office environments are having a detrimental effect on our health and happiness, in some cases causing higher levels of stress, conflict, blood pressure and staff turnover.

Sarah Ellice-Flint, Will Chambers and Scott Ellice-Flint, co-founders of Nook

Open office plans are not going anywhere, largely due to the effect of rising commercial real estate costs on business balance sheets. And there are some positive features of an open office workplace, if executed through a well-considered design. That’s why, here at Nook, we’re not trying to resist the open plan office but rather complement it with an intuitive product that aims to solve some of the pitfalls.

Currently, the options out there are ineffective, too expensive, cumbersome, or all the above.

Our solution is a soundproof booth delivered direct to businesses at an affordable price. Our booths provide a quiet space for employees to escape the distractions of the office, and an enclosed area to take or make a quick call without distracting their co-workers. With this, we’re determined to make workplaces a more enjoyable and productive environment for all.

Teaching the next generation

Tom Pastro (MCom '13) is the co-creator of Open Parachutes, a mental health prevention and awareness program for high school students. It aims to teach and prepare current students for the future of workplace wellbeing.

The link between organisational wellbeing and individual wellbeing is well established, and for Open Parachute, schools are ground zero. School teachers make an average of 1500 decisions per day. They work more unpaid overtime than any other profession and experience high levels of stress and burnout. Meanwhile, these teachers are training future generations of workers, who will eventually set out into the work force and face the challenge of managing their own mental health.

The Open Parachute curriculum programs have been developed using a holistic approach that includes teachers and parents, as well as students. As part of this, we have created a wellbeing program for teachers that helps them manage their personal mental health while developing skills to better support their students. By equipping teachers with this combination of skills, we are improving their organisational wellbeing from both a personal and professional perspective.

Tom Pastro

Parents of students receive regular updates throughout the Open Parachute program about what their child is learning, and acquire the skills to manage any questions their child might have. Indirectly, parents are also learning mental health skills that they can apply in their own lives. Workplace wellbeing is directly related to factors which include stress at home, so by helping parents to more meaningfully connect with and support their child, our program is reducing these home-life-related stresses.

Open Parachute’s vision is to equip teenagers around the world with practical skills for mental wellness. We are preparing future generations of workers by helping them to build the resilience they will need to manage their own mental health in their personal lives and in the workplace, so they can make healthy choices in both areas.

Giving back on a global scale

Angela Kwan (LLB '04 BA '02) is the co-founder of Catalyser, a software that allows large firms to coordinate their employee’s charitable activities. This software is described as an ‘all-in-one’ program which aims to achieve greater employee engagement and social impact success.

Angela Kwan and Aivee Robinson, co-founders of Catalyser

In August, more than 180 CEOs from some of the world’s leading employers, including JP Morgan Chase, Apple and Amazon signed a Statement on the Purpose of Corporation that outlines a new framework for business success based not just on shareholder returns but also commitments to supporting communities and investing in employees.

As the co-founder of Catalyser, I can confirm that this statement reaffirms the timeliness of our mission to help people to ‘change the world from their workplace’ with software that makes it easy for companies to engage their staff in community activities and report on their impact.

The concept of corporates ‘giving back’ to the community through corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs isn’t new. What needs refreshing is CSR strategy and management. Strategically, CSR programs should be investments that generate business return, and not just donations that are discretionary costs. A powerful example of how CSR investments can generate business value is through employee attraction, retention and engagement. Research shows that turnover is reduced for employees actively engaged in company giving and volunteering efforts. On the management side, we need to realise that scaling programs and reporting requires systems. Catalyser has facilitated more than $5 million in donations of funds and volunteering time, including managing annual volunteer days where companies mobilise thousands of staff across multiple offices to give back together. Without specialised technology, community programs simply cannot be scaled or tracked.

With the growth of movements like Pledge 1% (where companies like Atlassian and Salesforce allocate 1 percent of equity, time, product or profit for the community) and more companies integrating their businesses with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, we have the opportunity to align the future of work with a better future for all.

The Genesis program exists to support the most promising start-ups through mentoring from experts, assistance with media and a final award of $25,000. To find out more, or if you have an idea you think is worth consideration, visit the Sydney Genesis page.