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Wellbeing is the new black

tess-2-copyTess Casey
Chief Executive
Neighbourhood Support

Since the government announced their intention to introduce wellbeing as a framework for policy making, everywhere you turn you seem to become involved in a conversation about well-being.  After years of trying to get this on the agenda and being met with polite smiles, overt eye-rolling and/or the irritated response of ‘Yes, that’s all very nice but how do you measure it?’, the community sector should be jumping and up and down with joy.  But experience has told us that when a concept becomes popularised the result is not always what we had wanted.

The concept of focusing our work on achieving well thought out outcomes sounded great, until outcomes became an overly complicated part of many accountability requirements and suddenly we weren’t even sure what an outcome was any more.    We have had to reclaim words like inclusion and diversity when policies and programmes to promote them came with criteria that ended up excluding some groups over others.

The good thing about well-being as a concept and framework is that it means something real to everyone.  All of us can describe what we perceive our lives to be like when things are going well.  It’s a conversation everyone can be part of.   The challenge for policy-makers is that when people are asked about their wellbeing they will talk about some fundamental things, like employment and housing, but they will also talk about how they feel about things like safety, belonging and hope.  Messy, fluffy, variable things.  It’s much easier to work with things that are defined at the top and easily measured.

Recently I’ve had the privilege or working with a primary school to help them develop their school charter.  We have designed a process that ensures the voice of the children is the foundation of what is developed.  Every child in every classroom has been involved in a discussion about what they value and what they think is important.

There is nothing like talking to kids to keep things real.  They talked about safety and belonging and kindness.  The things that make them feel safe are things like having trusted people that they can talk to and knowing that people care.  They are proud of the fact that their school is a place where everyone is welcomed and accepted.  One of the really interesting things they talked about was the importance of having second chances.  (They also value getting free milk, having a tree house and the fact that there is ‘no smoking within 30m of our school to protect our younger kids’.)

What the kids described are the conditions that contribute to their wellbeing.  And it poses some interesting questions about how we do our work and the type of leadership we need to implement a wellbeing framework.

Do we really understand what wellbeing means to all the people involved in our organisations?  Have we asked them, or do we just assume that we know?  There is an interesting project in Canada called Vital Signs that has surveyed over 7000 people in British Columbia (BC) about how they participate in and perceive their communities.  The results are used to engage funders, government agencies, communities and NGOs in conversations that help them to work together to build healthy, vibrant and liveable communities across BC.

Like the results of our school engagement process with the children, the Vital Signs report highlights that belonging, trust and safety are important contributors to wellbeing.   It also shows that levels of wellbeing varied across different communities, for varying reasons.  This means that localised responses are required, and it also demonstrates that wellbeing is more complex than just looking at living standards.

From a leadership point of view it means that more attention needs to be paid to the culture and environment we nurture in our workplaces and in our communities.  How do our practices, the way we organise ourselves and our relationships create an environment where people can contribute, belong and feel safe?

Applying a framework of wellbeing that connects and aligns our economic and social policies could be a game-changer.   But it’s a big shift in thinking.  As our government agencies and our own community organisations try and get our heads around this I hope we resist the urge to take the easy route.  It would be easy to make some tweaks and then simply rename existing policy (like social investment) with a catchy wellbeing related title.

If it’s going to work we need to do some genuine inquiry with our communities to find out what wellbeing means to them.  It wouldn’t hurt to be mindful of what 300 children said.  It’s about being kind and welcoming, and it’s about second chances.  And tree-houses are also highly recommended.

This blog has been contributed by a member of the ComVoices network

ComVoices is a Wellington based network of national community and voluntary sector organisations. It was established so that sector organisations would have a more powerful voice at Government level and in the community.

Click here for our website:  http://comvoices.org.nz/