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Wellbeing – often overused and rarely understood?

If we said the word ‘wellbeing’, what would it mean to you? It’s a word we use daily in health, care, and community services, but it can be interpreted in so many different ways – feeling healthy, feeling happy, feeling content. It seems to be the ‘go-to’ word for public services, researchers, and policymakers whenever we talk about people’s outcomes and progress.  

Alongside our partners at LCR’s Civic Data Cooperative (CDC), we picked up on the prevalence of this term across our work and decided it was time to dig a bit deeper. We wanted to understand a bit more about the word, and how it lands with the people whose lives we define by it. Have we lost the word’s true meaning? When we talk to people using services and living in our communities are we talking about the same thing?

A key part of CDC’s role is to explore how we can better use the data that exists about our communities. If we’re using the word ‘wellbeing’ to measure progress, are we measuring the right thing, the right facts and figures to match up to the communities’ understanding? If we’re not totally confident that the data we call ‘wellbeing data’ is measuring the most important things, and then we’re using this information to design services and policy, how can we be sure we’re getting the big decisions right?

These were the key questions at the centre of Capacity and CDC’s most recently completed project – ‘Round ‘Ere’. We wanted to ask people the question ‘What does wellbeing mean to you?’. We chose Widnes, in North West England as our place of focus. Widnes is a very interesting town, a growing population, established industry, good transport links to Liverpool and Manchester, combined with a strong prevalence of low-paid jobs, poor health and poverty. It seemed like an interesting place to test our approach.

“It needs to be made the norm to look after yourself, with Widnes being an industrial place and everyone working in factories and stuff, I don’t think the priority was looking after yourself, it was just working to provide for your family, we need to make it normal to look after yourself.”
Widnes resident

As we approached this work, we were very clear – we didn’t want to ask this question as outsiders to the area, we wanted richer, relational conversations that generated richer insights. This led to us taking a participatory research approach, recruiting, training and paying a team of local people, to gather these insights themselves. This approach allowed us to nudge the power into the local community, ultimately our ‘research’ question had no right or wrong answers – what was key was a true, honest understanding of the things that help local people feel like their life is going well.

Over six months this team completed hundreds of interviews with friends, family and neighbours. We heard about pride of place, the importance of autonomy, the crucial role of strong human connections and how what’s available isn’t widely known across those who could make use of it. As might be expected, people talked about emotional wellbeing, consistently describing this as spending time with friends, family and others in their trusted social circle. Spiritual health also played a key role – faith, religion, and connection to ‘something bigger’ gave people a sense of peace, belonging or satisfaction. The reflection aspect of the project also helped many participants realise they hadn’t contemplated the ‘What makes me well?’ question for themselves, going on to acknowledge that defining wellbeing personally could actually help them in their lives. Again, many had been viewing this word as something that was described or defined to them by a professional, rather than something they could shape themselves.

“Thinking about these questions, I have realised I don’t know as much as I thought about my wellbeing and maybe I should think about it more often and invest my time in trying to improve it”
Round ‘Ere Community Researcher

The next part of this project will involve taking current ‘wellbeing’ measures across Widnes’ public services and comparing these to local people’s perceptions of being well. Taking these insights forward to develop a digital platform for Widnes that measures the ‘right’ data. From here we’ll go on to consider ‘how’ that measurement takes place on a local level and how local public and third sector organisations can use this project’s findings to design support, products and services that impact the measures residents told us are important.  

For Capacity we’ll continue to take forward the learning from this project across our other work, looking for opportunities to take similar approaches across the region. Our Fundamentals programme strongly aligns with the work we’ve done here. At its heart sits the commitment ‘Flow: at every stage of every project, the voice of local people flow through our decision making’. As a team, we’re fully committed to making public services people services, so listening work like this is our bread and butter. The inclusive approach of participatory design is something that we are excited to wrap into as much of our work as possible, now it’s time to find our next location, and next theme of investigation. Watch this space.  

“I would hope that the research might find its way to local leaders, and they consider its insights for improving our area… I can see that work like this is vital to make any step forward in social justice”.
Round ‘Ere Community Researcher

You can read more about our findings in our final project report, watch our summary video or listen to our project podcast on Spotify. Our report also contains detailed sections on our learning throughout the project, and our ‘recommendations for success’ for others running similar projects.