What can children in the care system tell us about their wellbeing?

Professor Julie Selwyn is a Professor and Director of the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies at the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. Here, she shares the findings from the new report she co-authored, Our Lives, Our Care: Looked after children’s views on their well-being.

There were 70, 440 children in care in England as of 31 March 2016, according to the Department for Education. The majority of children enter care because of parental abuse and neglect and often enter with physical, emotional and behavioural difficulties as a result of traumatic experiences. Every year ‘outcome’ data are collected and published by the Department for Education on children’s educational achievements, offending, mental health, and number of teenage pregnancies.

Children’s experiences not heard across system

Generally, children in care do not achieve the same level of academic success as their peers and are much more likely to have problems with crime, drugs and have poor mental health. Consequently, the care system is often viewed as failing but there is no systematic collection of information on how children feel about their lives in care. Nor do we know whether children in care emphasise the same aspects of their lives as being important to their well-being, as those identified by children in the general population.

Creating the surveys

In partnership with Coram Voice (a children’s rights charity) and funded by the Hadley Trust, we developed surveys to capture children’s views on their wellbeing. The questions that form the surveys were developed through talking to 140 children in care (aged between 5 and 18 years old) about what mattered to their wellbeing. Some of their concerns were similar to those of any other child but they also had different concerns, such as: the importance of having a trusting relationship with their social worker; their experiences of the stigma of care; understanding why they were in care; and the amount of contact they had with their families.  

From children’s comments, an extensive literature review and discussions with professionals, three surveys were developed:

  • young children aged between 4 and 7 years
  • children aged 8-10 years and
  • 11+years (secondary school).  

Four key domains were identified and their indicators.

The surveys were piloted in schools where cognitive interviewing took place. Questions were not always understood as intended and children under the age of 11 years did not understand questions that asked about their ethnicity.

Children in care also objected to a frequently used survey question that asks about the frequency of bullying. In their view, one incidence of bullying could have a severe effect. The question was altered to focus on impact and asked if children were afraid to go to school because of bullying.

We also tried to observe how long it took for children to get fed up answering questions and start swinging on their chairs! The first pilot in one LA was successful with a 40% return rate and children as young as 4 years old were able to make their views known through having a trusted adult helping them complete. Historically attempts to survey children in care have resulted in very low response rates of around 4-6%.  A brief set of results was sent to every child and a report prepared  for the pilot Local Authority, which acted upon the findings.

Unexpected findings

Following the pilot, six Local Authorities agreed to use the survey with their children in care. Findings from the first 611 children to complete the survey have been recently released.

There are some unexpected positive findings.   

  • Most children (83%) said that life had improved since coming into care.  Children said:   “Want to stay where I am and not go home.” (4-7yrs);   “Better than it was when I was not in care.” ( 11-18yrs).       
  • In comparison with children in the general population more looked after children, boys in particular, wrote that they liked school

While life had improved, children also reported that they often did not fully understand why they had been taken into care. One young person wrote:

“I would like someone to talk to about my feelings and tell me about my past. I would like to see a picture of my dad so I know what he looks like. I would like to see a picture of me as a baby. I have never seen a picture of me. I have a lot of questions that no-one answers.” (11-18yrs)

Children highlighted the importance of having a trusted adult in their lives.   But placements changed and nearly a third (31%) of the young people (11-18yrs) reported that they had been  allocated three or more different social workers in the year.  One  young person’s response to a question asking  ‘What would make care better?’ wrote ‘By not having 14 social workers in three years’.

Wellbeing decreased with age – whilst 7% of the youngest children were unhappy nearly one in five of young people 11-18yrs had low well-being. Factors associated with low wellbeing were gender, feeling safe, liking bedroom, having a trusted adult, taking part in hobbies/activities, worries, not liking appearance and feeling included. A number of policy and practice recommendations have been made.

In 2017, 17 more Local Authorities are using the survey and there will be the co-production of a new well-being survey for care leavers ( 16-23 years).  It is through listening to the voices of children and young people that policies and practice can have a greater focus on well-being enabling children to flourish in care.

For further information on methodology : Selwyn J., Wood, M. and Newman T. (2016) Looked after Children and Young People in England: developing measures of subjective well-beingChild Indicators Research.

Unemployment and (re)employment: what works for wellbeing?



Download the second briefing in our Work and Wellbeing: What Works series, unemployment, (re)employment and wellbeing.


Kevin_Daniels3Kevin Daniels is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at University of East Anglia and leads the Work, Learning and Wellbeing evidence programme for our Centre. Here, he gives an overview of the findings from our latest systematic review into unemployment, (re)employment and wellbeing and digs deeper into the evidence.

Our latest systematic review looks at the impact of losing, changing and getting a job on our wellbeing. It might seem like a simple relationship – we need to work to pay rent, after all – but in reality our work often means more to us than income alone.

This means becoming unemployed, or finding work, impacts us in profound ways. And not just us as individuals: our families and communities are affected too.

When we asked members of the public, business leaders, trades unionists and others about the wellbeing effects of unemployment and employment the clear priority emerged as improving job opportunities and promoting high quality, sustainable jobs.

Unemployment is damaging to wellbeing regardless of personal characteristics. Longer spells of unemployment are more damaging than short spells to wellbeing and there is very little evidence of adaptation – that is, wellbeing improving as people learn to cope with unemployment.  


There are differences in how the length and frequency of unemployment affect men and women.


There is also evidence that the damage to wellbeing may be greater for the young, particularly when the spells of unemployment are longer.  This evidence is best highlighted by a piece of research called The Happiness of Young Australians: Empirical Evidence on the Role of Labour Market Experience published in the Economic Record (2005) by Dockery, A.M.

Finally, unemployment not only reduces the wellbeing of the person who lost their job – it can also damage that of those that they live with.

Interestingly, living in an area with high unemployment had a mitigating effect on poor life satisfaction for its unemployed residents. This may be because there is less stigma associated with unemployment where the local unemployment rates is higher, and in the UK this results in a smaller reduction in wellbeing from being unemployed.

The research comes from Flint et al., (2013) which presented evidence using UK panel data of 10,702 individuals, across 347 areas and 17 years, finding that high local unemployment rates reduced the negative effect of unemployment. However, individuals who were unemployed, insecurely employed or permanently sick continued to have worse mental health when compared to individuals in secure employment.

A natural question to ask is “can re-employment help and to what extent?”. The evidence suggests that re-employment can be helpful in eliminating the negative wellbeing effects of unemployment but this is sensitive to job quality.

Reemployment is less rewarding for entry into jobs with less prestige, lower pay, or lower autonomy (Gedikli et al., 2017). What’s more, moving from standard to non-standard forms of employment (i.e. jobs with temporary contracts) reduces wellbeing (Llena-Nozal, 2009).

For policymakers, this translates into a need for continued development not only of strategies to increase employment, but also trying to reduce the impacts of unemployment on people and their families, especially the long-term and youth unemployed. There should be an emphasis on creating ‘entry’ level jobs which offer interesting work that builds skills and offers a career path. Apprenticeships can play an important role, highlighting the potential importance of the new Apprenticeship Levy.

The hidden ‘happiness gap’ in our communities


Download Measuring wellbeing inequality in Britain (March 2017)

We are launching this report at the Centre’s Annual Lecture, where Prof. John Helliwell will be speaking on the topic. To follow the discussions live on Twitter, you can use #WBlecture or @whatworksWB.


 Wellbeing inequality is a much better predictor of social trust than income inequality.  Given trust is such an important factor in creating cohesive, compassionate societies, it is important we do more work to understand what policies can lower wellbeing inequality.

Professor Helliwell

Wellbeing data tells us how people actually feel about their lives, whether they are thriving or struggling.  Using existing data about health, employment, education, crime and relationships – our wellbeing – in new ways, could help us explain everything from why we voted to leave the EU to what makes us trust our neighbours. But it leaves us grappling with fascinating, and vital, questions: does it matter if there is a big gap between the most miserable and the most happy in our society?  What broader information does it tell us about our society? And if it is undesirable, what policy responses might be useful?

Overall wellbeing inequality in 2014-15 for all local authorities, excluding London


Advances in wellbeing data infrastructure mean we can now look beyond income inequality alone as an indicator of how people are struggling, or thriving, in daily life. It’s a new concept called wellbeing inequality that is only just taking off in local authorities across the country. As with income inequality, large differences between those at the top  – the happiest – and bottom  – experiencing misery – is a bad thing for society.

An example of how it paints a fuller picture than income distribution: evidence shows it’s been a better measure than income inequality in predicting how different communities voted in the EU referendum. Places that had higher overall wellbeing inequality were more likely to vote to leave the European Union.  The relationship was significant, even after researchers controlled for other variables including median income, income inequality, unemployment levels, education levels and ethnicity.

High wellbeing inequality is also associated with lower trust in society.

Now, the editor of the World Happiness Report, Professor John Helliwell, is over to the UK from Canada, where he led the rallying call for a wellbeing inequality lens in policymaking. His goal? Helliwell is determined to convince local authorities across the UK that if they look at their communities through the lens of wellbeing inequalities, they’ll get a better idea of how people are coping, or not, and why different groups – men or women, young or old, for example – are impacted in different ways.

He is working with the Office of National Statistics and the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, part of the national network of What Works Centres informing government policy on key social issues.


Trust, wellbeing and measuring inequality

helliwellAt our Annual Lecture in London on 6 March the Centre will be launching a new report looking at measuring wellbeing inequalities across Britain. Speaking at the lecture is Professor John Helliwell, a leading happiness economist and proponent of wellbeing inequalities. Here he sets out why wellbeing inequality can help us focus resources and see a more complete picture than other measures alone.

Inequality in wellbeing and its impact on our lives is an area of policy that doesn’t get much air time in the UK. Although the idea of looking beyond income alone as a measure of local and national progress has taken root, there is still a way to go until we look at social justice through a wellbeing lens. This is a missed opportunity, as it can provide a broader and more appropriate measure than than income inequality alone.

Why is inequality in wellbeing important?

Focussing on averages can hide important underlying variation within and between population groups, places or regions. Differences in wellbeing show the gap between those who feel their lives are progressing well and those who feel they are languishing. They can show differences between groups, e.g. between females and males; those in and out of work; between areas. They can also show differences in wellbeing within a certain group. For example, within a local authority what are the factors that define those who feel they are doing well compared to those who are struggling?

Why we should look at inequalities, not just averages

When we make comparisons over time, increases in wellbeing averages may be entirely due those who already have high levels of wellbeing getting happier. This leaves those at the low end of the distribution unaffected, or possibly even worse off.

We need to focus resources where they will make the biggest difference, which is where a better understanding of inequalities in wellbeing can help.

Research due to be published by the What Works Centre for Wellbeing on the 6 March will show how inequalities in our wellbeing vary across local authorities, and in which authorities there are greater wellbeing ‘penalities’, such as having lower levels of education.

What might be the likely sources of wellbeing inequality?

Previous research carried out by the New Economic Foundation (NEF) – one of the What Works Centre’s partners –  has found unemployment rates to be a strong predictor of wellbeing inequality in a country. Higher health inequalities have been associated with higher wellbeing inequalities. Trust may also be a contributing factor. Research I carried out with Haifang Huang and Shun Wang shows that living in a high-trust environment makes people more resilient to adversity. Being subject to discrimination, ill-health or unemployment, although always damaging to subjective wellbeing, is much less damaging to those living in trustworthy environments.

These results suggest a fresh set of links between trust and inequality. Individuals who are subject to discrimination, ill-health or unemployment are typically concentrated towards the lower end of any national distribution of happiness. Thus the resilience-increasing feature of social trust reduces well-being inequality by channeling the largest benefits to those at the low end of the well-being distribution.

The nub of the challenge for policy-makers is: what next? What are the most important drivers and consequences of wellbeing inequalities? How can these measurements and indicators and the emerging data on wellbeing inequalities translate into meaningful actions? And where are the evidence gaps that could bring forward our understanding?

I’m looking forward to tackling the ‘what next’ with those in the UK who are at the forefront of researching, implementing and measuring wellbeing inequalities at the Centre’s Annual Lecture on 6 March.

Retirement and wellbeing: what works?

retirement-thumbFollowing our international systematic review, and in light of the government’s paper, Fuller Working Lives, published earlier this month, we look at what it means for people’s wellbeing to retire.



Download the retirement and wellbeing briefing.


If you think retirement is an automatic ticket to a happier life, our new briefing might give you pause for thought.

The systematic review looked at the global evidence base of mental health and wellbeing in the UK and similar countries.

The way we retire matters for our mental health and wellbeing. And it affects us differently depending on who we are, what type of job we are leaving, and whether we have a choice in our retirement plan.

A key finding for employers is that ‘bridging jobs’ could make retirement happier. Suggesting companies should consider supporting older workers to ‘wind-down’ into retirement with the choice of bridging jobs or reduced working hours.

But the most important factor is control over retirement timing. Being forced to retire due to restructuring or ill health is negative for mental health and wellbeing. Those who take up bridging jobs because of financial strain showed lower wellbeing.

Having a support network was also an important factor. One fascinating study in the review looked at the retirement transition and adjustment process. It found certain patterns in terms of psychological wellbeing (PWB), these were:

  1. Maintaining pattern: individuals cope with important changes in their lives by maintaining their familiar patterns of thought, behaviour, and relationships. This is the majority pattern (almost 70%). This group was composed of those who had a bridge job, had planned more actively for their retirement, were married and had a spouse who was present and not working.
  2. Recovery pattern: for those who were not satisfied with their career jobs, retirement can act as a way out from unpleasant work roles. For these kind of retirees, retirement is shown to be associated with an improved psychological wellbeing. This is a small minority pattern (under 5%). This group were was composed of those who retired from physically demanding, stressful, less satisfying jobs.
  3. Adjusting pattern: while initial retirement process resulted in worsening PWB, over time people adjust and report even better PWB compared to baseline. This is a significant minority pattern (over 20%). This group consisted of, those who had worsening health during retirement transition, had an early retirement and had unhappy marriage.

Since the government is already encouraging workers to prolong their working life, our evidence suggests that this might be accomplished by measures to support older workers with health problems who wish to stay longer in the labour market.

Measures to promote workers’ control over their retirement timing might include more support for pension saving (particularly for low earners), alongside better information
about retirement planning. Other initiatives within organisations might include late career reviews, which encourage planning for retirement.

Understanding happiness: ways to measure wellbeing

As well as the national headline measures of personal wellbeing, new methods of understanding ‘how we are doing’ are being used and studied. Here is a spotlight on the some recent findings.  We are exploring more of these methods in our measuring wellbeing series.

Measuring happiness from the words we use

Happiness levels of citizens of the UK 1771-2009

A recent study by The Centre for Competitive Advantage at Warwick University and the think tank the Social Market Foundation looked used the emotion words in over eight million books to map happiness over 200 years in six countries. They found that tracking the words used gave very similar findings to more traditional measures of wellbeing.  

As you might expect, war, civil conflict and economic collapse is very bad for our wellbeing and increase life expectancy and decreased child mortality increases happiness. They concluded we were happiest in 1957. This might come as a surprise to many people of colour, the LGBT community and other minorities who lived during the 50s; obviously, what is published in books is not the whole story.

We can see the impact on our happiness of more recent national events from the Office for National Statistics data here in the UK.  Grounds for an autumn bank holiday perhaps?


Taking the pulse of the public mood online

Other teams are now looking at how the words we use online tell us about population level happiness and predictors.

#HappySheffield shows the last 50 tweets analysed from Sheffield and the lastest emotion in the city.  You can compare your own twitter activity.


Dow Jones Index of Happiness who find that, unlike the age findings below, we are most unhappy as teenagers 13-14 years, with happiness rising to 45-60 and then down again for 75-84 years.


The World Wellbeing Project Has a range of studies on the language we use and our wellbeing including a study that was able to predict county level incidence of atherosclerotic heart disease from the use of words reflecting negative social relationships, disengagement, and negative emotions—especially anger—emerged as risk factors; positive emotions and psychological engagement emerged as protective factors.

Other happiness nuggets

The report has a lot of nuggets of recent wellbeing research findings

  • Happier workers are 12% more productive and that traumatic life events e.g. death or serious illness of close family member, unsurprisingly, reduces happiness but also reduces productivity.
  • Wellbeing research can explain voting behaviour beyond traditional financial indicators with drops in life satisfaction leading 10-12% drop in support for the governing party.
  • Happiest places have fewer unhappy people rather than having extraordinarily happy people but happiest places tend to have higher suicide rates.
  • Genetics explains up to ⅓ of our wellbeing with some people being more sensitive to their environment and the impact of both positive and negative life events.  
  • Happiness is contagious  
  • Happiness is U-shaped aka the midlife crisis is real


  • Eat your SEVEN a day – Eating fruit and veg increases mental wellbeing even more, and more quickly, than it improves physical wellbeing.


Do this

We can target happiness gains when decision making.  Policy makers already use wellbeing data to inform their case to HM Treasury for societal impact and the refreshed Green Book will give greater prominence to wellbeing metrics. Understanding of what makes us happy can help direct limited resources towards most effective ways to improve happiness.  

The report concludes with the policy recommendations listed below.

  • Vibrant economy and economic stability are important for wellbeing not just income growth. Stable employment and avoiding runaway inflation as the aim avoids the very negative impacts on wellbeing of unemployment beyond loss of income and allows spending on other things that enhance wellbeing.
  • Mental health services that are affordable, widely available, easily accessible and less stigmatised.
  • Better health including efforts to increase longevity, reduce child mortality and cleaner air including focus on prevention.
  • Shorter, and I would argue, better quality commutes.
  • Look beyond individual impact by fostering strong social networks to combat loneliness and because happiness is contagious.
  • Research which feelings matter most.

Lifelong learning: what are the wellbeing co-benefits?

The Government’s recently published Industrial Strategy, now out to consultation, indicated a shift towards embedding lifelong learning to help people retrain in new skills and adapt to rapid changes in technology.  What the strategy misses is how learning directly, and indirectly, affects our wellbeing.

There are 1.9 million adults enrolled in further education colleges, according to the Association of Colleges. And thousands of employees in the UK participate in work-based training and development courses each year.

When we spoke with the people around the UK about wellbeing, the most commonly used word was ‘opportunity’.  What you told us about learning, work and wellbeing was that:

  • work and learning offers achievement, satisfaction, appreciation, pride
  • work and learning can bring a sense of fulfillment, belonging, shared interest and experience
  • transition points (such as going into and out of retirement) need support.

What’s more, learning is also one of the evidence-based Five Ways to Wellbeing along with give, connect, take notice and be active.

And the obvious goal of the countless courses and training on offer appear to be improving they way we work, or changing our work completely.

But the evidence reveals that learning has an interesting and complex relationship with wellbeing. In the short term, the impact on wellbeing can be negative. Meeting essay deadlines or taking exams, for example, can increase stress or reduce social interactions with friends, which are factors that contribute to our subjective wellbeing.

When you take a longer view, however, additional formal qualifications or education shows a slightly positive impact on a person’s wellbeing. Again, this seems to correlate to what we might expect. For instance, we know there is a strong link between employment, especially high-quality jobs, and wellbeing. So where qualifications can lead to employment and higher quality jobs, it appears to be a good thing.

It also makes sense that where the process itself of formal and informal learning reduces isolation, there are benefits to participants’ wellbeing.  

But what, if any, are the benefits of lifelong learning to us as individuals, beyond its impact on employment progression? Does it matter what we learn about, or if we learn in-person or online? What are the criteria that make learning meaningful? And how does learning change over time? One striking finding about learning in the UK, for example, is that it is the one of the five ways to wellbeing that drops off most dramatically with age.

Evidence from observational studies (non-intervention studies that assess naturally occurring levels of learning, such as qualification or accreditation gained, or job status) supports a relationship between wellbeing and learning. Although identifying the causal mechanism has been more difficult: do happier people engage in more learning opportunities, or do learning opportunities make people happier?

In February, the Centre will publish our findings from a systematic review carried out with our team in the University of East Anglia on the wellbeing impacts of learning at work. Later in the year, we will publish the results of a systematic review of adult learning and wellbeing. This explores the processes through which this positive wellbeing occurs. 

Understanding the potential health benefits of different types of learning obviously has implications for service delivery, funding and policy making in further education and workplace learning.

The findings will address the question about the benefits of lifelong learning beyond employment-related benefits. It’s an important one. Especially if we are to evolve our perception of work-based and community learning from being focused mainly on what it does for our employment prospects, to how it contributes to our personal and community wellbeing. 

To get an alert when the work and learning findings become available, please email us at info@whatworkswellbeing.org.