Wellbeing On The Agenda. Part 2.

Wellbeing On The Agenda. Part 2.

1024 635 Vita Burton-Davey, Working to be better each day

Wellbeing On The Agenda. Part 2.

Wellbeing On The Agenda. Part 2.

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The recently published ‘Wellbeing in four policy areas, Report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics, September 2014’ advocates the importance of wellbeing and implementation of wellbeing for the nation, for economic national benefit. Four key policy areas have been the focus of the report: Labour market policy, planning and transport policy, mindfulness in health and education, and arts & culture.

Positive changes in these areas could have a huge impact on national wellbeing but it will in fact see a U-turn in some areas, such as arts & culture, where funding has been slashed. The report argues that ‘wellbeing evidence has real, distinctive, and wide-ranging policy implications: from interventions to build people’s resources and resilience, such as mindfulness, to major structural changes to address the root causes of low wellbeing, such as insecurity, poverty, and social isolation. It also helps capture the value of the intangible things which enrich our lives, such as arts and culture. ‘

Building a high wellbeing economy: labour market policy

Having a job plays a vital role in our wellbeing, not just because of the financial implications around unemployment but because it is directly linked to our sense of worth and ‘as enlightened employers increasingly recognise, prioritising employee wellbeing is good for the economy and good for business’.

We would all agree that the recession and increased unemployment have been bad for national wellbeing and for our economy. That does not, however, mean that high wellbeing is linked to exponential growth. The evidence suggests that ‘the link between money and wellbeing tails off as incomes increase, tackling poverty and inequality matters much more than increasing national income in aggregate.’

This is good news, if not particularly surprising. Neither we nor the planet can sustain unending growth, so as limited growth seems to be the best option for increased wellbeing, it’s a win-win situation. Let us hope that successive governments are able to take this on board and make the right choices as we move forward, not only helping employees and business but meeting and improving our green targets.

The report has recommend that:

  1. Stable and secure employment for all should be the primary objective of economic policy. Steady and sustainable growth should be prioritised over absolute levels of national income as a means to this end, and policy should address work insecurity as a priority.
  2. Government should address the wellbeing consequences of low pay. For example, the Low Pay Commission should be given a mandate to consider wellbeing evidence, including impacts on wellbeing inequalities, when recommending changes to the minimum wage.
  3. Government should address the wellbeing consequences of inequality. For example, firms with more than 500 employees should be required to publish information about the ratio between the highest and lowest paid, and between top and median pay.
  4. Government should actively seek ways to make it easier to work shorter and/or more flexible hours and should develop a public sector employment strategy consistent with this.

The Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills (BIS) should encourage employers in both the public and private sectors to prioritise employee wellbeing, for example by publicising existing employer best practice and by producing guidance based on research into the drivers and outcomes of well-being at work.

Building high wellbeing places: planning and transport policy

A clear and unequivocal message is sent to parliament with this report: The planning system has been noted to have ‘lost its way, becoming reactive and process driven, losing sight of the outcomes it was created to serve’. The report states that the planning system could regain ‘a sense of purpose and ambition’ if raising wellbeing were to be considered the central precept of the planning system.

Our constructed environment affects our happiness and wellbeing and reflects our community spirit. Even with the best intensions, the planning system has consistently failed to improve the wellbeing of the less affluent, particularly urban, populations. Think of the garden cities and how the reality of living in dense urban environments brought its own reality check to that dream. Successive governments have a huge challenge here and the suggestion that ‘an integrated approach focused on building high wellbeing places’ is laudable, but can it be put into practice?

The report recommends that:

  1. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) should be revised to make clear that promoting wellbeing is the over-arching objective of the planning system, not just a peripheral concern, and that the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ is subject to local authorities’ right and responsibility to set high wellbeing standards.
  2. Planning practice guidance should set out how wellbeing can guide Local Plans and specific planning decisions, including by; ensuring that town centres are sociable and inclusive spaces which are accessible for all sections of the community.
  3. Planning for an ageing population.
  4. Making it easier to access jobs and services by cycling and walking.
  5. Prioritising the provision of green space in ways that maximise wellbeing.
  6. Local authorities should be empowered and encouraged to take a proactive, ‘place-shaping’ approach to planning. Spatial planning should be re-integrated with other local authority functions, including transport and housing.
  7. At a national level, transport and planning policy should be integrated into a single department with the shared aim of promoting accessibility rather than just mobility.

Building personal resources: Mindfulness in Health and Education

‘Mindfulness has demonstrable potential to improve wellbeing and save public money – for example, through evidence-based therapies for mental health problems and school-based programmes to nurture children’s wellbeing’. Sounds good so far, but the suggestion to ‘train health and education professionals (doctors, nurses, teachers) in mindfulness’ seems not only unrealistic but also to miss the point about mindfulness.

Mindfulness is not a ‘skill’ to be drilled into health and education professionals, any more than compassion is; it is an holistic practice which may be incorporated into ones life. It is a healthy way to live ones life which has demonstrable benefits for improved mental health and wellbeing and it would be super to incorporate it into our health and education systems. In reality, however, the curriculum is already stuffed to gunnels, with teachers struggling with huge class sizes, and most health professionals would laugh in your face if you suggested that they have time for meditation, when they are barely given the time for the basic care of their patients.

In order to implement the recommendations of this report any further than in training would require a paradigm shift in the administration of both health and education.

The report recommends that:

  1. Mindfulness should be incorporated into the basic training of teachers and medical students.
  2. Subjective wellbeing evidence should be used in the calculation of ‘quality adjusted life years’ (QALYs), to better inform the allocation of scarce resources in the health service.
  3. HWBs should bring together public health professionals, Clinical Commissioning Groups, GPs, and other stakeholders to develop strategies for ‘whole person care’ which effectively integrate mental and physical health.
  4. References to wellbeing in the Ofsted inspection framework should be reinstated and strengthened. Schools should be encouraged to measure and report on child wellbeing.

Valuing what matters: arts and culture

Arts & culture have suffered a great deal from funding cuts during the recession, a decision which is clearly at odds with the new recommendations. ‘Wellbeing analysis provides a way of capturing the value that arts and culture have for human lives’ though the conclusion that ‘It is therefore a particularly useful tool for assessing public subsidy of arts and culture’ is one which I would question.

The ever increasing demand on the visual arts to provide participatory activity as a criteria for funding allocation is surely misguided: Can you imagine the same criteria being applied to opera or theatre? I am not saying that participating in art, acting or singing is not beneficial to mental health and wellbeing, only that arts and culture should not be funded as though they were part of our health system but valued and funded separately. In this area in particular I think the underlying precept for the reports recommendations needs to be re-evaluated.

The report recommends that:

  1. The Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), and the arts sector more generally, should use wellbeing analysis to help make the case for arts and cultural spending.
  2. Government should use wellbeing analysis to help set strategic priorities for spending on arts and culture. For example, spending should give greater priority to participatory arts.
  3. Arts funding bodies should seek to evaluate the wellbeing impacts of their grants, either individually or by using wellbeing evidence to inform their evaluation frameworks.
  4. In the light of evidence on the links between the arts and health, central government (DCMS, the Department of Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government) should work with relevant agencies, including Arts Council England and PHE, to maximise the beneficial impact on wellbeing of available budgets. Local authorities should consider how cultural commissioning might contribute to priorities identified in their Health and Wellbeing Strategies.
  5. Government should seek to ensure that the benefits of arts spending reach those with the lowest wellbeing, including communities with high deprivation.

The underlying reasoning behind this report is convincing and laudable. The report states that it has ‘only scratched the surface’ but its conclusion that improved wellbeing will not only make people’s lives better but save public money and increase GDP should be enough to at least get Parliament’s attention and with hope, open serious discussion around limited growth and focus on the parts of our lives which are not defined by monetary worth, will ensue.

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