Topic: Article
Posted on 16th Jun 2021

Does Wellbeing Have an Image Problem?

Wellbeing is a concept used increasingly as a tool to communicate and measure how we feel and how we function in the world. One particular use of the concept is through procurement processes, to procure services that have a greater impact in improving wellbeing and not inflicting detriment. But is our view of wellbeing too restrictive?

It may seem extraordinary to be worrying about how wellbeing is perceived at this moment in time. Large swathes of the global population have experienced a long dark winter of the mind due to Covid isolation. This has resulted in an outpouring of reflection about how people feel about themselves and their lives, and sparked discussions about the ways in which the Government can help people return to pre-Covid levels of wellbeing. The normally emotion-free world of procurement has not been immune to this new-found commitment to better wellbeing. In January 2021 the Government’s new procurement policy note PPN 06/20 (on taking account of social value in the award of Central Government contracts) came into force. The Note requires bidders for contracts to apply a Social Value Model to explain how social value will be delivered through the services it commissions. Unsurprisingly, many other public sector organisations have taken the government’s lead, placing weighting of between 5% and 30% on the answers each bidder gives for this part of their offer.

But in an article in the RSA Journal (Issue 2 2021) Ruth Hannan points out that the image that wellbeing has may be responsible for a failure to achieve better outcomes for those in procurement, their stakeholders, or anyone else. She argues that wellbeing is often seen as an individualistic experience ‘often closely aligned to mental health but positioned as self-care’. Poor levels of wellbeing can be perceived by some as shallow and even self-indulgent compared to the much more serious diagnosable complaints that can be treated by clinicians. Talking about wellbeing is associated with something that the wealthier parts of society can afford to obsess about, but is a subject the poor treat as a useless luxury, choosing to endure negative influences that impact the way they feel as an expected and normal part of life.

Clearly, the understanding of wellbeing is more nuanced than this, but if enough decision-makers feel this way about wellbeing, then it will continue to be something that is enthusiastically included in policy documents such as PPN 06/20, but is unlikely to have much impact on people’s lives. It will follow happiness strategies and corporate social responsibility into the ‘do-what-we-can’ ghetto without making much of a dent in the wider mainstream policies of either the public or private sectors. Policies that should actually make a difference.

Hannan, and others who research impacts on wellbeing such as the Pew Trusts know that our wellbeing is a product of many influences, most of which we are not able to control. These influences include; the denial of social justice, unequal treatment in the criminal justice system, difficulty in accessing services, negative experiences leading to poor levels of education attainment, difficulty in becoming skilled or finding the right job, or finding any job at all, expensive or hard to use public transportation, living in poor housing conditions that does not match the needs of the householders, and simply having insufficient levels of income to be able to live without fear or hardship. And that is before the links are made between poor levels of wellbeing and the deterioration of both mental and physical health.

If there is one thing that the Covid crisis has taught us, its that people living in poor conditions suffer more when society is under pressure. This is not news, but the pandemic has shown us that when this section of society suffers, we are all affected. Improving people’s feelings of self-worth, confidence, family resilience, and the ability to interact and support each other are all wellbeing issues that will have lessened the impact of the virus on underserved communities.

One way of ensuring that the individual is not left to fruitlessly trying to address issues that are undermining their wellbeing is to build safeguards into the interventions that can cause harm. An example of this is the efforts being made by Transport for London to pre-empt negative impacts on wellbeing from their own development projects. It aims to do this by holding development partners to a set of performance standards set out in the TfL Sustainable Development Framework.  The Framework seeks to ensure that development instigated solely or in partnership with others promotes wellbeing and increases the social value created by stakeholders who experience the new schemes. There are sections of the SDF that set standards for good building environments, healthy streets and greener neighbourhoods. But Framework also seeks to enhance health and wellbeing through better air quality, security and noise. It also encourages a high standards of engagement to give enhanced feelings of control, and better social infrastructure so that local people have access to the services and meeting places that facilitate the lives they aspire to live.

Those that question the importance of wellbeing need only ask themselves how they would feel if circumstances around them denied them the quality of life they seek to lead, or if they had to struggle with feelings of low self-esteem because the social justice they deserve is not forthcoming. Urban designers have a key role in the facilitation of superior wellbeing and should follow the TfL example and set their own standards to ensure that the promotion of wellbeing is part of every project they create.

Crafted in Liverpool by Kaleidoscope