Workers are fit but not happy, says Liz Elam

The physical health box has been ticked by many workplaces, according to Link Coworking owner and Global Coworking Unconference Conference founder Liz Elam.  

She said better working environments and mental health are the next frontiers of the healthier workplaces trend.

“I think everyone has checked the box on physical health, gym and meditation, and this is fantastic. There is nothing that says you shouldn’t do exercise or meditation,” Ms Elam told The Fifth Estate.

“Level two is environmental and mental. That’s what is next. It’s about what you are doing about the person sitting there contemplating suicide.” 

Ms Elam points a finger at loneliness – “the epidemic that no one is talking about” – as one of the key triggers causing high rates of anxiety and depression for workers, particularly Millennials. 

She believes as the wellness trend progresses, there will be a greater focus on technology and apps that help monitor your health, including how your mental state is responding to your working environment. 

There is also likely to be more emphasis on genuinely healthy spaces, including air quality, ergonomic furniture, natural light, and connection with the natural environment. She also predicts a spike in WELL certified buildings. 

Ms Elam has also observed a shift in corporate thinking around employee health. Forward-thinking businesses are starting to take more responsibility for the wellbeing of workers “in their care”.

It’s in their interests as unhappy workers tend to be less engaged, Ms Elam said. Mental health issues are currently “the most expensive thing, health-wise, facing companies”.

Co-working operators driving wellness trend 

Ms Elam said co-working operators were helping to drive this change in attitude.

In the gig economy, people often work at home, where they may have limited social interactions, she said. This can lead to depression and other mental health issues. She believes this is one of the key reasons co-working spaces are booming.

“When I started looking into co-working in 2007, there were a handful of spaces in the world. In 2012, there were 500 spaces. Now there are 15,000 or so.” 

The entry of major corporations into the co-working market is also driving the upward curve. 

Ms Elam said this began with research and innovation teams who wanted the collaborative, creativity-sparking benefits of co-working environments. Now, co-working spaces are becoming part of corporate real estate strategies.

Although these affordable alternatives “start out as a money play” in locations such as Sydney that are “nearly out of office space”, workers end up happier and healthier.

“Once they’ve had the crack, they don’t want to go back,” Ms Elam said.

One challenge for co-working operators, such as WeWork, is that the sudden presence of 50 accountants can be at odds with the start-up culture.

She said that operators will “need to navigate and incorporate the corporations into the co-working community” to make this arrangement work.

“Community is always a major focus for co-working operators,” she added.

Liz Elam spoke at the Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC) in Sydney this week.

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