Please note that What Works Wellbeing will close operations on 30 April 2024.  Read more
Mar 31, 2021 | by Peter Cheese

Wellbeing – past, present, and future

We are pleased to welcome the new Chair of our Board: CIPD Chief Exec Peter Cheese. Peter is taking the role forward after six years of leadership from founding Chair, Paul Litchfield. The appointment marks a new chapter for the Centre as we continue an ambitious programme to understand what organisations can do to improve, promote and protect wellbeing in the UK, and reduce wellbeing inequalities. 

Positive wellbeing is one of the most fundamental attributes of healthy and productive societies and of organisations. We understand wellbeing as a general sense of wellness, of positive state of mind and of contentedness. It is also a construct that goes back to the roots of humanism and the early philosophers. Aristotle saw wellbeing, or eudaimonia, as an outcome of the advancement of humanity, and that idea has as much resonance today as it ever did.

In a world that is changing rapidly, where there are many questions about the future, driven by the impact of technology but also other societal and political shifts, then surely a goal of greater wellbeing is something we should all aspire to. Indeed, it is one of the United Nations sustainable development goals for the future – Goal three, which focuses on “ensuring healthy lives and promoting wellbeing”.

But reaching these goals requires broad and holistic thinking. It requires policy interventions and investments, education and awareness, societal change, and greater focus of attention in organisations and businesses everywhere. Greater collective wellbeing will require issues such as fairness, inclusion and safety to be tackled, just as much as it requires more direct mental and physical health interventions.   

The good news is that wellbeing as a societal and business agenda has been steadily growing in its recognition and importance over the last decade. The establishment of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing by the Prime Minister in 2014 was a strong signal that improving collective wellbeing needed to be a policy focus, but also that more evidence was needed to drive the right approaches. 

Within businesses too, wellbeing began moving from a peripheral issue to something that was being seen as substantive and important, and at the heart of the ideas of responsible business and good work. And it needed to. If we support people’s wellbeing, they will be more likely to stay, to be more productive, and to positively promote the organisation. Work should be good for us.

The response was also needed because many of the indicators of wellbeing haven’t exactly been improving. Rising incidence of mental health issues, of stress, and declines in physical wellbeing have all been evident for too long.

The pandemic has clearly acted as a catalyst to accelerate the wellbeing agenda everywhere. It was first and foremost a human health crisis, but it also quickly became a vital business continuity issue, and a wider economic challenge. It has also widely impacted people’s mental health and wellbeing, particularly through the social isolations and huge adjustments we had to make to protect ourselves.  

In a positive way, for our communities and within our places of work, the pandemic also heightened our sense of need to support each other, for greater compassion, and perhaps even to take better care of ourselves and the things that most matter to us. It’s allowed many more of us to talk more openly about our wellbeing without fear of judgement. 

It has been said before that crises represent danger but they also represent opportunity. We need to build on this momentum around wellbeing, and take it forwards to create real lasting change. 

These are not simple shifts to make. We need the right measures to understand progress, to be able to assess what is making a difference, and to be able to hold ourselves, our businesses and our communities more to account. 

It is these things that the What Works Centre represents. Building the research and evidence base, the ways of measurement, the social, policy, and organisational changes that are needed. It couldn’t be a more important time for the Centre and for the critical themes of wellbeing. 

Having long been a passionate advocate for wellbeing, particularly as a business agenda, I am delighted to be able to help the Centre on the next stage of its journey. We need to widely embed its work through the many different partners and channels it engages with, and to further raise its voice as a trusted source of evidence and insight on one of the most important challenges of our time. 


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