How are we doing during Covid? What will have the biggest impact on our communities and our national welfare?

20 October 2020

By Nancy Hey (Director of What Works Centre for Wellbeing)

Wellbeing is ‘​how we’re doing​ as communities, individuals and as a nation, and how sustainable it is for the future’ (ONS) and is referred to in the Treasury ​Green Book​ as Social Value. ​Wellbeing Economics ​is how we allocate resources to best improve lives now and in the future. The What Works Centre for Wellbeing informs policy making in the public sector as well as in business and civil society. Our role is to understand what organisations – government, business, communities – can do to improve wellbeing and to work with partners to fill gaps in the knowledge, and learn from actions more about ‘what works’.

Looking beyond averages– understanding impacts on multiple areas of our lives, for different groups, across time

We have brought together the evidence of the​ impact of COVID-19 on wellbeing​ and the impact on ​the drivers of wellbeing​ for different groups of people. We have turned this into an ​ongoing crowdsourcing ​of relevant evidence.

As a first step, we have to acknowledge that COVID-19 has had a big impact. After mostly slowly rising since being introduced in 2011/12, subjective wellbeing measures in April saw the lowest level of life satisfaction in the UK since 2011 – a big drop of 0.7 in average life satisfaction – and in Europe since 1980.

In March and April, we saw a very big drop in positive affect (happiness), alongside a very big increase in negative affect, especially of feeling scared, and then feeling bored and frustrated. Whilst we have adapted since, normality has not returned and the impacts are not equally spread. Anxiety for example, which more than doubled, is connected with financial difficulties, either with incomes, savings or housing.

As well as the health and economic impacts of the pandemic, we know that other aspects of wellbeing were affected, especially because the ​top drivers of high wellbeing are social. For this reason we have partnered with Dr Daisy Fancourt at UCL to make sure we consider real-time evidence about this.

Whilst the ​most popular coping mechanism ​for dealing with the pandemic was keeping in touch with family and friends, the loss of social contact is significant and affects all ages. This has been particularly true for those already ​at risk of loneliness. There is a significant evidence gap, and very patchy subjective wellbeing data for those under 18s.  We prepared a  briefing on the ​impact on loneliness drawing on this evidence.

One thing that is really clear from our work on the impact of COVID-19 on our wellbeing is that we know far too little about how children and young people are doing.

It’s important to note too that for some individuals, some things got better as a result of COVID-19.  For instance, ​consider commuting.  With the shift to working from home, some workers increased leisure time, improved physical health, and reduced daily stressors. We know an additional 20 minutes of commuting each day is found, on average, to have the equivalent effect on job satisfaction as a 19% reduction in income – this is a loss of £4,080 pa for someone who earns £21,600.

Others working from home – for instance those ​working in isolated or confined conditions – were more negatively affected.

All this reminds us that impacts of COVID-19 on wellbeing fall into disparate dimensions, and are different for different groups of people.

Wellbeing across areas

You may have heard of ​New Zealand’s wellbeing budget​, OECD’s Better Life Index or the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act in Wales  — all part of a wider shift in policy making around the world since 2008. A wellbeing approach to policy means:

  • focusing on a broader range of outcomes across all areas;
  • focusing on outcomes that matter to people’s lives;
  • using objective measures (such as crime rates or GDP) but also subjective measures (such as fear of crime or feeling better off);
  • and looking at how to build resilience too.

We worked with colleagues at the Centre for Economic Performance at LSE to develop a framework for decision making, for example in ​this exploratory paper ​on when to lift lockdown. This multi-dimensional perspective also informed this McKinsey analysis to understand t​he social impacts of COVID-19  across Europe.

Wellbeing isn’t just government’s job: business & employers

Being employed has one of the ​biggest and most robust impacts ​on wellbeing. Government has obviously taken steps to help support employment.  But part of our response is focused on ensuring employers know what to do to ​support their employees.

For instance, we delivered training by bringing the latest research and measurement to businesses and employers to help understand what the likely impact might be in their context and what they might need to do to help support the wellbeing of their employees.

In addition, we have helped organisations consider how to be resilient, through:

Understanding distributional impacts of the pandemic on wellbeing and its drivers help governments, business and charities understand how they can focus time, money and effort on what will make the biggest difference to people’s lives now and for the future wellbeing of the nation.

Visit the hub of the social science community’s response to COVID-19.

Nancy Hey is Executive Director of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing. At the Centre we believe that improving wellbeing is the ultimate goal of policy and community action. We are an independent collaborating centre that develops and shares robust and accessible wellbeing evidence to improve decision making that is used by governments, businesses and civil society.

The perspectives expressed in these commentary pieces represent the independent views of the authors, and as such they do not represent the views of the Academy or its Campaign for Social Science.

This article may be republished provided you place the following statement and link at the top of the article: This article was originally commissioned and published by the Campaign for Social Science as part of its COVID-19 programme.