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What the UK needs is a wellbeing based recovery

Written by: Deborah Hardoon, Head of Evidence and Analysis at the What Works Centre for Wellbeing

The Covid-19 pandemic and the social and economic measures put in place to respond to this health crisis, has affected everyone in the UK. Whether the virus itself has led to the death of a loved one, we are no longer able to go to work due to the lockdown or we just miss giving our friends and family a hug, it’s hard to get our heads around the multitude of ways people’s lives have been affected in different ways. It’s even harder to think about the counter factual of some of the decisions that have been made. What would our lives be like if we hadn’t gone into lockdown? Or if the furlough scheme was not introduced so quickly to protect the incomes of millions of people? Are these alternative scenarios better or worse than where we find ourselves today?

A lot of attention has been focused on public health and employment responses. But decisions are being made at all levels, in national departments for housing and digital technology, in local authorities, in businesses and as individuals. Action is being taken to both mitigate the negative impacts of the pandemic as well as seeking to continue to pursue existing and important goals, including shared and sustainable local growth.

These are unprecedented times, with policy changes being enacted with profound speed and scale. But balancing an understanding of the diversity of factors that have a deep and important affect on our lives, as well as the difficult tradeoffs associated with different policy decisions, is nothing new.

Every policy or investment decision takes place under this context of complexity and tradeoffs. Building a new road might reduce commuting times for people, speed up delivery times and improve accessibility and productivity. But it could also reduce air quality for people living in nearby homes. It costs money that could be spent on alternative projects. It could result in more road traffic accidents. Changes in road usage could affect people’s physical activity levels. Positively or negatively. So how do you decide if it’s worth it?

A Wellbeing approach can usefully provide a framework for making decisions and comparing options and outcomes. It takes into account people’s health, as well as the economy. But it also accounts for the quality of our relationships and the air that we breathe. It requires a systematic analysis of the effects on all the areas of life that are important to us, across all individuals and communities, also accounting for spillovers and unintended consequences in other areas of life. Subjective measures of wellbeing, which ask people directly how they are feeling - is also key to recognising that individual impacts can be different, based on who people are and the experiences they have, and they should be taken into account as an outcome of prime importance. Similarly, community and place based measures, including those that measure outcomes like trust and social support networks, are key to understanding whether or not we are thriving together as a society in a way that is inclusive and sustainable.  

In the UK, there are lots of ways that this kind of thinking is working in practice and shaping the way decisions are being made.

  • One of the aims of Scotland’s national performance framework, which began life back in 2007, is explicitly to ‘increase the wellbeing of people living in Scotland’. Scottish Enterprise is now focussed not just on growth, but on achieving quality jobs and addressing inequalities.
  • The Future Generations Act of Wales, places a legal duty on 44 legal bodies in Wales, including museums, libraries and so on, to consider future generations in their policies and activities in terms of their social, cultural, environmental and economic well-being.
  • The Social Value Actalready obligates those procuring products and services with public money, to consider wider social, economic and environmental outcomes when choosing who to award contracts to.
  • Within businesses, there is growing recognition for the importance and value of investing in the wellbeing of employees and increasing understanding of what works to achieve this.
  • As individual’s there is increasing recognition for the importance of investing in the aspects of our own wellbeing we can control ourselves.

It feels like now is the time to be even more explicit about how we are making decisions, recognising who is being affected and in what ways. As well as explicitly using the evidence on what works to support people and improve lives, particularly during challenging periods of change and uncertainty. For example,

  1.  A recent paper from the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance, explored the different costs and benefits of the lockdown, demonstrating how a wellbeing approach, supported by evidence, can be usefully applied to complex decisions.
  2. Another paper using survey data from April, finds that health related costs of the pandemic only account for one third of the negative impact on people’s wellbeing, with the remaining two-thirds representing the economic and social impacts on people from the social distancing measures.
  3. Researchers by McKinsey has also looked at how the multiple determinants of wellbeing have been affected in recent months to understand better the changes in wellbeing across countries in Europe.

The policy and practice implications from a wellbeing approach can inform both immediate responses and longer term strategies. For example, we know that the job losses that have already occurred will have an important impact on people’s wellbeing and as such, getting people back into work should be a priority for local and national recovery efforts. For people still in work, we have also summarised the evidence employers can use to better understand the wellbeing impacts of Covid and what associated action they can take now to protect the wellbeing of their employees. And an approach that recognises the unequal impactthe crisis is having on people in different areas of their lives is critical.

But it’s also been clear from the pandemic and how it has affected people’s lives and our communities, that investing in the ability of our societies to respond to shocks is equally important. Strong healthcare systems and healthy people, trust, secure jobs and sufficient social safety netsare both good for wellbeing in the short term, but can also prevent catastrophic losses to wellbeing during times of crisis. Building up this resilience should be a part of the UK’s recovery plan.

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