Election 2017: can wellbeing data help unpack what matters?

Uncertainty appears to be the new normal when it comes to politics. The traditional lenses we use to examine public attitudes and behaviour, like income and GDP or healthy life expectancy, are still part of the mix. But it is wellbeing concepts that give us a really useful vocabulary to talk about the incredible changes we’re seeing in attitudes at a local and national level.

The most important early observations from a wellbeing perspective are:

1. Governance, specifically trust in the delivery of public services, matters. This is something that’s relevant all the time, not just at elections. Governance is often overlooked when it comes to it’s effect on our wellbeing, compared to other things like health, personal finance or relationships. However, it’s now coming to the forefront as we try to better understand what voting behaviour is telling us about people’s lived experiences.

Using the World Bank indicators, analysis shows that what ranks highest in importance for people are ‘effectiveness of government services and efficiency of government and policy delivery’. This is particularly important at lower GDP levels, but still holds true in richer countries.

The European Social Survey suggests that once a country reaches a good level of GDP, other governance factors become important, particularly ‘voice and accountability’, ‘political stability and absence of violence and terrorism’.

The evidence shows that when people are satisfied with the way they are governed, wellbeing is higher and more equal. Political stability bucks this trend, presumably because the longer a government remains in power, the more people feel that their interests and opinions are not being taken into account.

In the UK we have seen a decline in views of  government effectiveness since 2004. There have also been sharp changes in voice, accountability and political stability between 2002 and 2006.

fig5The last factor cited in the survey – ‘absence of violence and terrorism’ – has taken on new relevance following the three terrorist attacks that happened in Manchester and London during the election campaign. Hopefully more analysis will be carried out to fully understand its exact impact, but it certainly created an unprecedented context in which people cast their votes.

2. Being seen and heard matters. The European Social Survey suggests that two conditions affect our perceived satisfaction with society: unemployment levels and ‘perceived quality of society and societal wellbeing’, which includes things like quality of public services and feeling listened to.

We’ve seen high employment in the UK, and arguably this has cushioned the UK from the wellbeing impacts of the financial crisis. But  many clearly “feel more acutely that their interests and opinion are not being taken into account.” We can see that the financial crisis recovery didn’t reach everyone.

Additionally, the strength of our social fabric gives countries resilience and there are additional wellbeing benefits when a country’s strong social relations can help them weather crises. An interesting example is Iceland.

3. Wellbeing, and wellbeing inequality, can tell us more of the real story than income and political voting records alone when it comes to the mood of the country, or any given area. It was the an important indicator, for example, of how different regions voted in the EU Referendum.

It would be interesting to see more analysis at a constituency level before drawing too many specific conclusions. However, it’s an exciting time to be in the midst of a new way of measuring and understanding what really matters to people – which is all wellbeing really is about.

We already know, from research carried out by our evidence team at the London School of Economics, that when average wellbeing drops, an incumbent government is more likely to be booted out. When it rises, this has little effect on voting patterns. We can see that average national wellbeing rose between 2011 and 2015, and then levelled off in 2016, and we’re left with tantalising questions about its relationship to our current hung parliament.The election raises important issues for our Centre. The changing world of work, how people view their public services, social trust are just some of the elements that are shifting the balance of politics as usual. We need to keep working to understand what it means to be human and what matters to us most.

We must focus our collective efforts on creating the conditions to improve our wellbeing. This means:  

  • policy that values what matters to people including dignity, control, trust and place
  • a focus on societal advancement with human beings at the centre and the purpose of the wellbeing of future generations.  

These problems can’t be solved by government, business or charities alone. New types of collaboration are needed. This is what we aim to achieve as a collaborating centre at the What Works Centre for Wellbeing. And we’re looking forward to sharing new evidence over the coming months that will help policymakers and practitioners make better decisions to improve people’s lives.

A budget to increase wellbeing in the UK? #Budget2017

The purpose of our economic growth is to improve the quality of life and prosperity of people in the UK.  This budget has some potential wellbeing gains, but also misses some opportunities which we set out  yesterday. 

The Chancellor’s focus on opportunity through learning and training is backed by the research: evidence shows that continuing to learn throughout life is not only useful for developing skills and improving job prospects, it can improve and maintain our mental wellbeing. Unemployment has a bigger impact on our wellbeing than loss of earnings and it will be interesting to see what difference the support for returning to work makes to wellbeing of those out of the labour market in caring roles where evidence is currently missing. Likewise, the Living wage increase should see wellbeing impacts as the wellbeing impact of increased income is  greater for lower paid than better off, pound for pound.

What this budget does miss is mental health which has the biggest impact on our satisfaction with life – this is important enough that it deserves special mention.

Nancy Hey, Director, What Works Centre for Wellbeing

Work

Unemployment is always damaging to wellbeing. Men tend to suffer more from unemployment, however new evidence suggests women who are committed to their careers suffer more than men. Return to work is good for wellbeing but it has to be good work

Sara Connolly, Professor of Economics at the University of East Anglia. Work, Learning and Wellbeing Programme.

  • £5m for return to work schemes positive for wellbeing. Extended breaks in employment, especially when they are unplanned, have a significant and scarring effect on wellbeing.The support for working parents and return to work schemes could be particularly powerful for certain groups for whom wellbeing is lower. But there is no evidence yet about how the transition into and out of caring roles impacts wellbeing. Research in this area would fill an evidence gap.
  • Business rate changes help local employers. Support of small and medium local businesses through the Business Rates measures could have a positive impact on wellbeing – employees of smaller businesses tend to have higher life satisfaction than those from larger employers.
  • Self-employed are a diverse group.  Some evidence suggests that the self-employed in the UK have higher wellbeing, but one study suggest that the benefits of self-employment are limited to the better off [1] and those in temporary jobs have lower wellbeing. Flexible work is good, but lack of control in work is bad for wellbeing.

Tax changes for female self-employed might discourage women from re-entering or entering the workforce and lower wellbeing. The changes could also have negative wellbeing impacts for learners who are working self-employed to finance part time study.”

Kevin Daniels, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the University of East Anglia. Lead investigator of Work, Learning and Wellbeing Programme.

Learning and Training

  • The Department for Education will pilot different approaches to encouraging lifelong learning. Evidence shows that continuing to learn throughout life is not only useful for developing skills and improving job prospects; it can improve and maintain our mental wellbeing.  The investment of £40m to pilot different approaches to test what works for different approaches to lifelong learning is a sign that better evidence is key to making better decisions for our quality of life.  
  • Changes to training has the potential to re-balance wellbeing gains for different groups. Currently, lower level and technical qualifications result in lower financial and wellbeing returns than hIgher education qualifications.

Will Vocational Education and Training shakeup convince employers that qualifications have value? If not could be bad for wellbeing of learners. Government investing in VET training will only be good news if young workers can find good quality jobs to put skills to use”

Olga Tregaskis, Professor of International Human Resource Management at the University of East Anglia. Work, Learning and Wellbeing Programme.

  • Education for wellbeing is missing. The most recent Good Childhood Report shows us that girls aged 10-15 are less happy than they used to be. Last year’s report showed us that England ranked 14 out of 15 selected countries for wellbeing at school. This matters for the current lives of these children but also for their future – self-control, perseverance, the capacity to delay gratification, and the ability to cope with shocks are strong predictors of adult wellbeing. A wellbeing budget would focus as much attention on building social and emotional skills as on educational attainment. Which will help with productivity in the long run – we know that increasing wellbeing in children improves exam results, future wellbeing and future earnings.

Community Wellbeing

  • Community assets matter. Local pubs, key hubs for community activities, will benefit from tax breaks, and it would be good if more social spaces – libraries, cafes, and other bumping spaces – could also benefit. Children and people from some demographic groups are less likely to access pubs. There was also no formal valuation of common assets – green spaces, shared community resources, heritage buildings – despite evidence that these are important for community wellbeing.
  • Volunteering and giving. There were no announcements on related issues that could help develop community wellbeing – measures, for example, to encourage volunteering and community groups.
  • Quality of relationships. Good partner relationships are second most important factor in our adult wellbeing, so £20m investment in measures to help women escape violent partners and rebuild their lives are welcome. These programmes speak to early years and the stability of positive parenting – protecting women is protecting children (a shocking 200 children are bereaved each year in the UK by men killing their mothers).  The quality of a parental relationship affects the wellbeing of their children and its violent conflict that is the most harmful.

The budget has missed the major opportunities to increase wellbeing: no large roll-out of preventions of mental illness amongst children, no large initiatives in mental health treatment, where mental health problems are a major cause of low wellbeing; no push for flatter and more trusting organisations and ways of delivering services; no strong push against inequality; no moves to push for more pedestrian zones, jobs near homes, cheaper housing, forced parental leave, or increased mandatory holidays, all of which are moves towards more contented lives that put more value on relations.

Paul Frijters, Professor of Economics at LSE and lead investigator of the Cross-Cutting Wellbeing Programme.

Health and Social Care

Policy that values what matters people prioritises dignity and respect.

  • Potential to improve work conditions in the sector. There are not two cultures in the workplace: how you treat staff is how patients will be treated. The quality of care has often come under scrutiny and many working in care homes are unskilled and hold few formal qualifications. The investment of an additional £2bn for social care packages in England over the next three years opens a window of opportunity if directed toward upskilling in this area.  and thus has a positive impact on those who are currently low skilled working in this area. Forthcoming Centre evidence show the wellbeing and productivity gains possible in this sector, through well designed training.
  • Dedicated mental health provision missing. The Budget did not set out any dedicated investment in addressing the increasing demand for interventions that improve mental health. Early years investment in mental health is key to ensuring wellbeing across the life course, so preventative measures and treatments should be supported.

The Chancellor’s announcement of an extra two billion pounds for adult social care is welcome, obviously. All serious commentators realise that there is a crisis in social care and that this puts huge pressures on the already struggling NHS as well as causing massive personal distress. And investment in social care is probably a very wise priority. We need to welcome this investment, but remember that social care, health care and, perhaps particularly, mental health care, are all crucial elements of central government support for wellbeing.

Peter Kinderman, President of the British Psychological Society, and lead investigator on the Community Wellbeing programme.

Overall economy

The OBR have upgraded their growth forecast from 1.4% to 2% for next year. The level of national income has surprisingly little effect on wellbeing, as long as it does not go down.

Most importantly, the government is not announcing that it will seriously start to experiment with ways to increase wellbeing at all levels of government: no major experiments in teaching, health, the organisation of the civil service, housing, policing, etc. So we are not preparing to learn what works and what we can thus roll out in the future

Paul Frijters,  Professor of Economics at LSE and lead investigator of the Cross-Cutting Wellbeing Programme.

REFERENCES

[1] Blanchflower and Oswald (1998) find a robust positive effect of self-employment using UK data. Blanchflower, D. G., & Oswald, A. J. (1998). What makes an Entrepreneur? Journal of Labor Economics, 16(1), 26–60.

Alesina et al. (2004) find that the positive effect of self-employment is limited to the rich.

Alesina, A., Di Tella, R., & MacCulloch, R. (2004). Inequality and happiness: Are Europeans and Americans different? Journal of Public Economics, 88, 2009–2042.

What would a wellbeing budget 2017 look like?

Over 50 years of research has told us how we can improve wellbeing through Government policy. Will these feature in the budget?

Work and the Economy

  • Think creatively about incentivising ‘good jobs’

This budget needs to prioritise reducing unemployment and creating high quality jobs.

Previous business rate proposals meant that rates for pubs, shops, GP surgeries hospitals could be set for increases as high as 400 per cent. This creates a short-term danger that a business’ biggest overhead could be cut: employees.  Unemployment is one of the most important things the Government should care about in a wellbeing budget.

Becoming unemployed has among the most damaging effects on wellbeing and mental health, alongside health and relationships. The wellbeing impacts of unemployment go beyond the impacts of income.  If someone is unemployed for more than a year, their wellbeing will  permanently be lower – it increases once back in employment, but doesn’t increase back to previous levels. Where a parent has been unemployed in the past, their adolescent children will have lower wellbeing and self confidence, years later and after their parents are back in employment.

Being in a job is good for wellbeing and being in a ‘high quality’ job is even better. We don’t mean a certain skill level, type or industry. It’s about what makes a job worthwhile for us. Things like how secure it is, the social connections we have, autonomy and purpose, among other things.  A people-centred Budget needs to address the fact that  fewer than 3 in 10 (28%) people in the UK reported high satisfaction with their job.

The Budget needs to encourage high quality jobs.   For example, business rates could be lower for organisations taking action to create high quality jobs, or ensuring higher wellbeing for employees at work. This would have benefits for the wider economy as well. Organisations that strive to improve employee wellbeing tend to have better productivity, higher levels of innovation and creativity and lower costs associated with absenteeism, presenteeism and staff retention(1).

  • Improve commuting

We know that a longer commute is negative for wellbeing.  Importantly, we never adapt to a poor commute. As anyone who has to catch the 7.41 from Hove to Farringdon can tell you, it affects us daily. Research shows that merely switching from commuting by car to walking improves our wellbeing. We need a budget that promotes job creation nearer to residential areas, and make sure those jobs are open to local people.

  • Encourage lifelong learning and improve training system

Evidence shows that continuing to learn throughout life is not only useful for developing skills and improving job prospects; it can improve and maintain our mental wellbeing.  Learning throughout life is associated with greater satisfaction and optimism, and improved ability to get the most from life. People who carry on learning after childhood report higher wellbeing and a greater ability to cope with stress. They also report more feelings of self-esteem, hope and purpose whilst setting targets and hitting them can create positive feelings of achievement. Learning often involves interacting with other people and this can also increase our wellbeing by helping us build and strengthen social relationships.

A shake-up of the current training system has the potential to provide young people with a quality learning route. Research shows this is important for personal wellbeing, as well as productivity gains. Typically, lower level and technical qualifications result in lower financial and wellbeing returns than higher education qualifications. It’s argued this stems from the perception of technical qualifications by employers as poorer quality and lower value . Creating a qualification that has value to both employers and employees could yield significant benefits for personal wellbeing as well as productivity.

  • Provide adequate support for those at the end of their careers

Those who are involuntarily forced into retirement, without a financial safety net, experience the greatest drop in wellbeing.  A wellbeing budget would provide incentives for firms to support employees in planning for their retirement – this might include the option of reduced hours or other forms of “bridging’’ employment.

Health and social care

  • Improve work for those in the sector

There are not two cultures in the workplace: how you treat staff is how patients will be treated. Social care is a key priority for many local areas, but care work can be viewed as low paid, precarious and undesirable, making recruitment difficult. The quality of care has often come under scrutiny and many working in care homes are unskilled and hold few formal qualifications.

We know what works to improve conditions, increasing wellbeing as well as productivity in the health social care sector. A forthcoming Centre review of the published evidence will show that training in the workplace, combined with changes in job design, can improve the quality of the job, improving conditions for staff as well as  improving performance, reducing absenteeism and conflict.

  • Think across departments – prevention matters

Acute responses to crises have high costs. Prevention has a long pay-back. Those with higher wellbeing are less susceptible to illness and are more likely to recover faster. Even the emotional support in the first 3 years of a child’s life can hugely influence later outcomes.

We know that physical activity can prevent and improve a range of mental health conditions and music and singing can improve wellbeing, especially for older people. There are clear health and wellbeing benefits from a connection with the natural world, including national parks, local pockets of green space, canals, rivers, or the coast.

The budget would recognise the valuable role which social connections play. Countries where everyone has someone to rely on have significantly higher wellbeing compared to countries where no-one has someone to rely on- around 10% higher, even when other factors like health and income are accounted for. Individuals with higher loneliness have significantly lower wellbeing. In countries where everyone feels that most people can be trusted, the country tends to have around 20% higher average wellbeing compared to those where no-one answers positively to their levels of trust.

And what can Government or local authorities do? What works for social relations? An upcoming Centre review will lay out the existing evidence. We already know that community and housing design play an important role – those living in walkable, mixed use neighbourhoods are more likely to know their neighbours and trust others.

The wellbeing budget would promote cross-departmental cooperation, working together to support social care of the elderly and creating an environment which is sociable. Continuing the positive steps already taken by the Department of Health, the wellbeing budget would continue to recognise the importance of wellbeing and the role of culture, sport and ‘green’ interventions for preventing and improving diagnosed conditions.

Taxes and stability

  • Tax increases, tax cuts, spending… and stability

The main insight from current wellbeing research into taxation is that poor individuals get more wellbeing from an additional pound than rich people. Once we reach a certain income, increases in our income only increase our wellbeing by a small amount – studies have estimated that doubling our household income would increase life satisfaction by a little over 1% (2).

Because we compare ourselves to others, our wellbeing won’t increase if the income of all those around us increases at the same rate. The level of national income has surprisingly little effect on wellbeing, as long as it does not go down. Measures of wellbeing are more than twice as sensitive to negative economic growth as compared to positive growth. Economic stability is important.

Why should the Government care about the wellbeing budget?

Where people have lower wellbeing, the leaders are more likely to be voted out.

The wellbeing budget – what next?

These are just examples of some of the evidence of what influences our individual and community wellbeing. Beyond this, our national wellbeing rests upon how this adds up as a whole – now and going forwards. Based on the evidence, a Government would prioritise investments to improve national wellbeing, current and future. However, there is still a lot to learn. We need to test which approaches work best, in what format, to understand how wellbeing can be improved. Especially for those with the worst lived experiences. We don’t need to roll out new approaches before testing – we need to try new things in a way which lets us understand what works – and what works for wellbeing.

You may also like: How a spending review would look if the government wants a happier Britain 

(1)  Prof. Alex Edmans, London Business School,2015, BITC/Ipsos MORI 2010, The Wellness Imperative: World Economic Forum 2010.

(2) The regression coefficient on log income in a BCS life-satisfaction regression (controlling for other adult outcomes, childhood outcomes and family background) is 0.20
Doubling household equivalent income is predicted to raise life satisfaction by oneseventh of a point.

Guest blog and report: The Implications of Wellbeing Research on Government Policy

 

kim_engel (no 10 downing street)The Hertford Business & Economics Society, an undergraduate group at the University of Oxford, recently completed a research project looking at wellbeing and government policy. The final report was presented to the Cabinet Office in December 2015. Here, Kim Engel, one of the co-authors of the report introduces its three main proposals.

 

  1. Guidelines for civil servants

Ideally governments would carry out controlled experiments to assess the wellbeing impact of every plausible policy. The most cost-effective policies would be implemented. Then further experimentation would be used to refine those policies.

But in reality experiments require scarce resources like money, time and expertise. And there are still large methodological controversies surrounding the quantitative measurement of wellbeing. This leaves room for organisations such as the Civil Service to adopt other approaches to improving wellbeing.

We proposed the use of a brief, one-page “wellbeing table” for making speedy estimates of wellbeing impact. The table would provide space to describe the probable effects of a policy on key determinants of wellbeing such as employment and mental health. It would come attached to a one-page “information table” highlighting the main conclusions of existing academic research into factors affecting wellbeing.

  1. School and university incentivesHBESoc

A study involving more than 17,000 Britons found that “the most powerful childhood predictor of adult life-satisfaction is [a] child’s emotional health” (Layard et al., 2013). Yet schools currently have limited incentive to prioritise wellbeing. OFSTED assessments cram “Welfare, personal development and behaviour” into one section out of a total of four.

We suggested that a new section on “Pupil Wellbeing” could be introduced to OFSTED reports to give schools credit for adopting proven methods of improving wellbeing such as social and learning (SEL) programmes, healthy eating measures, and the provision of good counselling services.

Universities can also make a big difference to wellbeing in the UK. Above all they must address massive increases in the number of students with mental health problems. HEFCE statistics published in 2015 show a 125% increase in the number of students with mental health problems in the four years to 2012-13, while many universities are reporting double-digit annual growth in demand for counselling services.

We therefore proposed that the National Student Survey (NSS), taken by more than 300,000 students annually, should include a question about satisfaction with university mental health services. This would generate valuable information for prospective students, and give universities strong incentives to up their game.

We also mention the further possibility of adding the “ONS4” wellbeing questions to the NSS. By providing a snapshot of wellbeing at every UK university, this would help researchers and universities figure out “what works” for wellbeing.

  1. Wellbeing reporting

 Businesses can take a variety of evidence-based actions to improve employee wellbeing. These include improving work-life balance, promoting good health, helping employees take greater control over their work, and developing employee’s sense of the social value of their work (New Economics Foundation, 2014). Companies that succeed are likely to enjoy a boost in profits as productivity rises and absenteeism and employee turnover decline, raising economic growth and making everyone better off.

We proposed that the government should mandate large firms to produce an annual report on employee wellbeing. The reports might explain how wellbeing policies are adding value to the firm and disclose expenditure on non-financial wellbeing (e.g. social activities, counselling, physical health programmes). They would alert shareholders, employees and the media to underspending or under-performance on employee wellbeing. Firms would therefore have additional incentive to invest in employee wellbeing.

 Full report: The Implications of Wellbeing Research on Government Policy

→ Response to the report by Ewen McKinnon, a member of the Analysis and Insights Team at the Cabinet Office

Discuss on our forum

References

Jeffrey, K., Abdallah, S., Michaelson, J. (2014). Wellbeing at work. New Economics Foundation.
Layard, R., Clark, A. E., Cornaglia, F., Powdthavee, N., Vernoit, F. (2013). What Predicts A Successful Life? A Life-Course Model of Well-Being. Discussion Paper No 1245. Centre for Economic Performance, LSE.

 

 

 

 

Will this Queen’s Speech improve wellbeing in UK?

Over 50 years of wellbeing research suggests that governments could improve wellbeing, and reduce wellbeing inequalities, by focusing on:Queen

  1. Mental Health, social & emotional skills, partner relationships and physical health
  2. Community wellbeing including social support, volunteering, giving and social contectedness to reduce loneliness
  3. Balanced stable economic growth, low unemployment and wellbeing at work
  4. Good governance including devolving power, anti-corruption, freedom to choose, faster, less contracted, processes especially for children and families

At an individual level there are five ways to wellbeing – Give, Connect, Take Notice, Be Active, Keep Learning.

Does this Queen’s speech address any of these?

  • The life chances approach is an opportunity to address inequalities in wellbeing that lead to poor outcomes both for those individuals involved and the affect on our national and community wellbeing.  We all benefit from reduced inequalities in wellbeing.  The proposed indicators for life chances needs to include personal wellbeing.
  • There is a a focus on better mental health provision for individuals in the Criminal Justice System, on speeding up processes for children in care, and for adult learning. Improving the speed and efficiency of court processes should improve governance which has an unexpectedly large impact on our wellbeing.  We’re not always great at looking after our future wellbeing so the focus on savings should help. There is potential for digital services to help connect people, improve services and increase learning as well as growth.
  • The National Citizen Service has been shown to have positive lasting wellbeing impacts so its extension is welcome.  It will be important to make sure that the impacts are sustained as it expands.  Increasing giving through the Small Charitable Donations Bill should be positive for wellbeing too.
  • Commuting is one of the few things that has a sustained negative impact on our wellbeing so improving services and giving greater control through access to information is welcome.
  • Continued support for devolution of powers appears in many of the proposed Bills.  This promises greater autonomy, freedom and control and we need to see if these new powers do lead to these outcomes and increase our wellbeing. Likewise support for the Sustainable Development Goals, which takes a wellbeing approach at a global level, is promising and should include the measurement of personal wellbeing.

Why this matters

Our national wellbeing is how we are doing as individuals, communities and as a nation and how sustainable this is for the future. It is measured by the Office for National Statistics and covers – the natural environment, personal well-being, our relationships, health, what we do, where we live, personal finance, the economy, education and skills and governance. Our personal wellbeing is  particularly important as a way to see how we’re doing overall and it impacts the other outcomes.

Give your view on the new forum