Putting wellbeing at the heart of recovery in the UK: insights for government leaders

If a policy helps people to thrive, it’s a success. Covid-19 has highlighted and exacerbated deep inequalities in our society. It has affected many aspects of our wellbeing – our health, our work, our homes, and the quality of our relationships – in ways that have been felt by some much more than others. 

At this pivotal time for recovery, thinking and planning in the UK, it is vital that government leaders take into account the impact policy development will have on national, local, and individual wellbeing. Decision makers should be asking – what is necessary to protect the wellbeing of those most affected? And what does ‘good’ look like for the UK’s future?

Decision makers should be asking – what is necessary to protect the wellbeing of those most affected? And what does ‘good’ look like for the UK’s future?

The response so far

  • The past few months have raised an awareness and appreciation of our sense of community and our mental health as critical aspects of our wellbeing, according to Lord Professor Richard Layard. Using existing tools of government decision making – with wellbeing as the ultimate goal – could lead to greater investments in crucial social infrastructure.
  • Businesses have recognised how important employee wellbeing is for their survival, shares Louise Aston, from Business in the Community.
  • There has been an agility of communities and charities in response to the virus and the lockdown, particularly at the very local level, highlighted by Dawn Austwick, CEO of the National Lottery Community Fund. It is a reminder that communities have an intrinsic wellbeing value in their own right.

The OECD has already identified three ways in which wellbeing can inform recovery planning:

  • Identify pre-existing vulnerabilities to target support, especially socioeconomic disadvantage.
  • Highlight areas not previously on the government’s radar.
  • Build resilience in systems, including social capital and trust.

But although the whole of the UK has been affected, it is clear that the impact has been different for different people. 

As well as looking at the main drivers of wellbeing for informing policy decisions, it is also important for local and national policy makers to understand how and why these drivers of wellbeing/misery might have been compounded or improved for some people.

Wellbeing inequalities

At the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, we have been collecting and analysing evidence on how different individuals and groups have been affected, and changes that have occurred in all areas of our wellbeing. 

As well as the health risks posed by the disease itself, we have also looked at other physical and mental health outcomes, changes to economic circumstances and social and environmental factors. Our evidence draws on official statistics, as well as insights from experts.  

Insights and associated policy responses so far include:

  • Not having the quantity and quality of relationships that we would want can directly affect our wellbeing, but people that are lonely also share many characteristics associated with low wellbeing. To ensure recovery activity effectively targets loneliness reduction, evidence identifies three key areas: 
    • Invest in supporting relationships.
    • Provide the means and opportunity for people to leave damaging or toxic relationships.
    • Target the most at-risk groups.
  • The social and economic impacts of Covid-19 have had a disproportionate impact on people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. In addition to the increased risk from the virus itself, people from ethnic minorities have been more affected by job losses and associated financial impacts, compounding existing economic inequalities. We know that the amount of income and wealth we have matters for our wellbeing, but it also matters how much we have compared to others. So where the economic gap widens, our wellbeing is affected even more.

In addition to the increased risk from the virus itself, people from ethnic minorities have been more affected by job losses and associated financial impacts, compounding existing economic inequalities.

  • People most at risk of worsening mental health are likely to have a similar profile to those at risk of the physical health impacts from catching the virus and the economic and social impacts from job losses and social distancing measures. A wellbeing based recovery can focus on: 
    • Supporting and restoring access to mental health services. 
    • Nurturing the positive impacts on mental health that have resulted from changes to our way of life, such as the increase in exercise, sleep and visits to green spaces.
    • Building connective infrastructure. 
  • Being male puts you at increased risk of the most severe health consequences from the virus. Men are more likely to require hospitalisation and intensive care. At the same time, psychological distress and the negative relationship between Covid-19 and wellbeing is higher for women. Six out of ten women (61%) are finding it harder to stay positive day-to-day, compared with 47% of men. To address this, local decision makers can:
    • Collect and report wellbeing outcomes by gender.
    • Recognise and value unpaid care work and the importance of nurturing relationships, and distribute more equally between mothers and fathers.

There is an opportunity now to draw on this growing body of evidence of what works to improve our wellbeing. We can use this evidence to respond to the challenges that lie ahead, while being clear about what a good life looks like, for us all.

We have put our research into an email that can help you construct a wellbeing approach to Covid recovery policies and practices. Get the evidence in your inbox each week – sign up here.