Wellbeing Connect: Integrating Research and Policy for Health, Work and Wellbeing is a research group that has developed an innovative and far-reaching approach to the study of subjective wellbeing and public policy. Building on extensive and well-funded existing research and strong links with the policy process, the members of Wellbeing Connect aim to increase and deepen their production of knowledge, transfer it more effectively both to other researchers and those involved in the development and delivery of policy, and to evaluate more precisely the impacts of the resultant interventions, in turn informing both knowledge generation and delivery in a positive feedback loop.
Wellbeing Connect has evolved from a series of collaborations between researchers interested in the interaction between research on wellbeing, work and health and policy formation and implementation. It builds on the perception that much current research on wellbeing fails to achieve its full potential because of a series of disconnections that prevent the capturing of key synergies between, on the one hand, differing groups of researchers and, on the other, between the research and policy communities via carefully-developed activities that build out of extensive experience at the research/policy interface and which build on existing research initiatives. The group is attempting to capture many of the currently unexploited synergies.
The group’s activity involves the enhancement of current research initiatives in directions identified as yielding significant added value, including: the broadening of existing research teams to enhance interdisciplinarity (for example, introducing statisticians and/or psychologists into epidemiologically-focused projects); supporting the secondary analysis of existing data sets both those collected by team-members (for example, the Fair Treatment at Work Survey) and those collected elsewhere (for example, those developed by the Offices for National Statistics); the linking of currently disparate data-sets (quantitative with other quantitative and quantitative with qualitative) exploiting complementarities to identify new, previously inaccessible nuances; increasing the engagement of researchers with the policy process via the fostering of closer links between researchers and the policy community (for example, via the placement of researchers into policy settings); researching on the delivery and impact of policy (for example, via the placement of researchers into policy settings); researching on the delivery and impact of policy (for example, following research ideas through the policy chain to the point of delivery); and evolving a strategy of active dissemination via a variety of media (for example, undertaking policy-orientated seminars at times and places that are convenient for the policy community).
Centred around a large diverse and internationally recognised team within Cardiff University, WellBeing Connect also involves researchers from the Universities of Bath, Manchester, Birkbeck, Queen Mary/Barts, Nottingham, Swansea, Institute of Occupational Medicine and University of Ulster. The network’s defining features are a strong interdisciplinary ethos, and a very close connection to the policy process, involving not just interaction with those involved in policy formation, but also those involved in policy implementations and, most crucially, those affected by policies.
The aim of Wellbeing Connect is to become a self-sustaining research group on the interface between subjective wellbeing research and public policy. Its current plans are to enhance and expand its existing research portfolios in new directions that have been identified win the initial meetings of the group by its senior researchers and that will be identified in future as the group works together and in close collaboration with other stakeholders. Wellbeing Connect provides us with a unique opportunity to explore the spaces between currently funded research activities, using relatively small packages of funding to enhance and add value to these existing activities and developing the current research in ways that will maximise both its ability to provide insight and the efficacy of its transfer into the policy community.
A key role for the group is to act as a panel of experts that can be used to put together research teams to undertake a range of research-related activities. This will allow funding bids to be more easily developed and research teams for one-off pieces of research to be more readily developed. The network will be integrated via an active website, managed by the centre administrator, regular seminars and conferences and the circulation of work-in-progress between members. The aim is to develop self-sustainability via research grant funding, membership subscriptions (both corporate and academic) and the obtaining of continuing and discrete sponsorships.
The key issues relate to the growing recognition that work-related stress is growing in Britain and most Western industrialised countries and that well-being reflects far more than economic affluence. This has recently been recognised by the UK Government in its development of a national measure of well-being, coordinated by the Office of National Statistics at Newport. The underlying issues have occasioned an impassioned debate around the theme of “happiness” with the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, particularly its Director Lord Richard Layard, taking the academic lead. Cardiff has a rich tradition in the area of well-being research but its expertise has not been as well recognised as that of CEP. In undertaking this research the Cardiff group has formed strong research networks with like-minded researchers and these are underpinning moves towards new and innovative research that crosses inter-disciplinary boundaries and connects more strongly with the policy process.
Wellbeing is a term that is heard with increasing frequency. It is used by people in public services to explain what they are trying to accomplish, and also by private companies as they try to market their products. Individuals want to be not just free of ill-health, but also to have a sense of wellbeing. We talk of whole societies as showing differing degrees of wellbeing and try to understand why there are such differences between them. A key paradox of modem society is that the unprecedented increase in economic prosperity experienced in the recent past does not seem to have made us feel better individually or as communities. Researchers and politicians alike are becoming increasingly aware that, beyond certain levels of growth, there is no simple correlation between personal or societal wealth and the wellbeing of populations; and that, as Robert Kennedy famously remarked, ‘Gross National Product… measures everything…except that which makes life worthwhile.’
Wellbeing is partly about ‘happiness’, but also about ‘being well’ and ‘welfare’. The distinction is possibly best made clear by reference to the classical Greek concept of eudaimonia. Whereas the term ‘happiness’ refers to a subjective state of mind that we might sometimes also call joy or pleasure, eudaimonia refers to the less subjective notion of human flourishing, or that which makes life worthwhile. This Aristotelian concept has been used most recently by the American philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, and provides a philosophical foundation for the applied work she has undertaken on ‘quality of life’, and for the capabilities approach to welfare economics that Amartya Sen has developed in collaboration with Nussbaum – an approach to economics that is fundamentally different from that developed by economists wedded to the narrow view of wellbeing that takes happiness as its proxy for wellbeing. As well as providing the basis for a more grounded approach to individual wellbeing, in combining subjective and objective aspects, it also helps us to address the question: ‘what kind of society do we want?’ in a more systematic and coherent way in relation to well-being than other, narrower conceptions. It is therefore laudable that Sen and Nussbaum’s work has provided the foundation for the UN’s Human Development Index, and a more rounded view of the relationships between wellbeing and policy. ·
Public policy is increasingly concerned to be able to justify itself in terms of some evidence about what does or does not work in different settings. However, in thinking about wellbeing and public policy, the Wellbeing Connect group is aware of the need to recognize the different ways in which human flourishing may be approached, and which will continue to make the concept of well-being ‘essentially contested’ regardless of the systemic and robust nature of evidence and arguments. Indeed, one of the highlights of the group’s early discussions has been the fascinating exchanges of views on what wellbeing is and how it can best be both defined and measured.
What this work encourages us to explore are the different standpoints from which wellbeing might be understood. For example, commissioners and policy-makers are often only interested in simple and measurable behaviour change, such as smoking cessation or alcohol reduction and other health and social outcomes such as reduction in the rate of sickness absence or reductions in the demand for services. Community members, in different sorts of communities, in contrast, may have a much more ‘human flourishing’ approach, emphasizing inter alia: fulfilling social relationships, pride in neighbourhoods, making a contribution to their community, having hope for the future. These are powerful needs which necessitate an approach to both research and policy in the area of wellbeing that is simultaneously bottom-up and top-down, capturing such differences in perspective.
The contested nature of any work on wellbeing also means that an important part of the activity of a group like Wellbeing Connect must be the embedding of the research projects within a ‘dialogical’ framework. To be effective, each area of research activity must place considerable emphasis on dialogue with end-users throughout the lifetime of the funding, in exploring what wellbeing means, shaping the design of the research, discussing its strengths and weaknesses as it unfolds and in evaluating, reviewing its significance for different populations and its impact on individuals and communities, and thinking about how the research can be translated meaningfully into material for policy-makers and practitioners.
Subjective wellbeing has recently moved even closer to the centre stage of the UK public policy agenda, partly because of the Black Review of the relationship between work and wellbeing, but also because of the increasing awareness that job stress is rising to record levels (Green and Whitfield, 2009). The Black Review (Black, 2008) has suggested an ambitious policy agenda which has been positively addressed by the UK Government (DWP/DH 2008; DWP 2008). It was based on a thorough review of existing evidence on work and wellbeing, but it is clear that the successful implementation of its proposals requires a considerably stronger and more policy-focused evidence base (Whitfield et al., 2009). This will require, inter alia, the collection of information relating to the precise areas on which policy is focused (both quantitative and qualitative), the more intensive analysis of existing data-sets and stronger engagement between researchers and those involved in the making and implementing of policy.