Will wellbeing be a gimmick or a policy that changes lives?

Catriona Stewart

The Herald, 24th January 2020

On so-called Blue Monday, the day when, supposedly, our resolutions have crumbled, we are post-Christmas skint, and the weather is dire, I gathered with a group of staff from PricewaterhouseCoopers to join them on an early-morning walk designed to add a dose of wellbeing to the start of the working week.

Moving quite literally from darkness into light, we set off at 7am in order to be high up in Glasgow Necropolis for sunrise.

Fresh air, exercise and companionship are certainly all ingredients for improved physical and mental wellbeing – but was this merely a gimmick from one of the big four accountancy firms? The staff I spoke to certainly didn’t think so.

The feeling of being meaningfully cared for is enough to boost wellbeing in itself, particularly by a body that has a huge influence on your life.

Mental health and general wellbeing have become popular topics over the past few years, championed by everyone from grassroots groups to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Rightly so. Stigma around mental health has led to untold damage, while a failure to prioritise wellbeing leads to poor health.

Should wellbeing be a priority for government? It makes absolute sense for it to be so, as was stressed by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this week at the Wellbeing Economy Alliance conference in Edinburgh.

“Scotland is redefining what it means to be a successful nation by focusing on the broader wellbeing of the population as well as the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the country,” Ms Sturgeon said.

“The goal and objective of all economic policy should be collective wellbeing.”

Her words couldn’t have been more prescient. On Wednesday, the day of the conference, an independent economic report was released showing that Scotland had slipped to the bottom third of OECD countries in terms of wellbeing.

The report by economist John McLaren placed Scotland 21st out of 32 countries, down five places between 2006 and 2018.

The First Minister went on to say that involving wellbeing in political decision-making is a “moral issue”.

Despite headlines declaring that Scotland is leading the way on collective wellbeing, we are, in fact, not the first country to look at taking wellbeing in to account when measuring our success.

New Zealand has taken the lead in enshrining wellbeing into setting budgets and assessing government policy as part of a radical economic plan devised by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Its focus is on improving the lives of the poorest citizens by putting social wellbeing indicators ahead of GDP for making spending decisions. Finance minister Grant Robertson described the country’s wellbeing budget as one to make the county “both a great place to make a living, and a great place to make a life”.

Like Scotland, New Zealand has serious challenges. It has diseases of poverty that have been eradicated elsewhere in the developed world, and has the highest youth suicide rate in the OECD.

New Zealand’s wellbeing focus followed the Welsh government, which passed the innovative Well-being of Future Generations Act. The act, which came into force in 2016, places a legal requirement on public bodies in Wales to consider the economic, environmental, social and cultural impacts of their decisions in order to develop long-term solutions to issues like poverty, low-quality jobs and ill-health.

Last year, though, the law was called “virtually useless” by a senior barrister after the act was unsuccessfully used to try to challenge a school closure. Wales’s post of Future Generations Commissioner has also been called toothless.

It has been suggested that Welsh organisations must be more ambitious and resourceful to truly make wellbeing an important part of public life.

Keeping an ambitious and resourceful attitude is certainly good advice for Scotland. Last year the Scottish government, along with the governments of New Zealand and Iceland, formed the Wellbeing Economy Governments Group, with Scotland looking at how it could become a “wellbeing economy”.

At Westminster last year, an all-party parliamentary group on wellbeing economics found that happiness, fulfilment and a reduction in anxiety were more important to the voters’ view of government than GDP or jobs.

Happiness and health, rather than wealth, should be the main measure of an economy. This means investment in schools and mental health and addiction services.

It means acknowledging the vast amounts of unpaid care carried out by, mainly, women, and it means investing in social care.

It feels like the right time to focus on wellbeing. There has been a societal shift to acknowledging that success isn’t always measured in pounds but by more subjective gains.

A wellbeing economy also supports interlinking improvements that have multiple benefits to the population. So, tackling air pollution helps the environment, but also improves children’s health. Prioritising improvements to effective, joined-up and affordable public transport helps with health, the environment and poverty.

A government focused on wellbeing could not introduce austerity.

Measuring success by GDP, as we do now, gives no indication of the vast inequalities of wealth across the country and is a barely recognisable indicator in people’s everyday lives. GDP tells us nothing of volunteering or unpaid childcare; it ranks fossil fuels next to farming in economic output.

It will be interesting to see how the Scottish Government can turn wellbeing into practical, positive measures for the people of Scotland – will wellbeing be a gimmick or a true measure of a government that cares?