What Works for monitoring and maintaining workplace wellbeing?

Since 2016, the Civil Service Awards have included a category to celebrate those who improve wellbeing in their organisation. Knowing how to measure wellbeing is critical to their success, and we speak to former civil servant Nancy Hey about setting up the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, her time as a policy official and why wellbeing is being taken more seriously as a measure of progress


By Tamsin Rutter

07 Nov 2018

At the ages of 23 and 68, Nancy Hey informs Civil Service World, research tells us that wellbeing peaks. And in between? Some four and a half decades of working life.

“We haven’t learnt collectively about how best to improve wellbeing at work, even though we spend huge amounts of money on wellbeing at work, and we spend all our day there,” says the director of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing.

This lack of research on wellbeing at work is one of the things that has surprised Hey since she launched the centre in 2014. “Organisations everywhere make massive decisions for a range of reasons and we don’t often look at the wellbeing impact, we often rely on anecdote,” she says. One example is the shift to hot-desking or remote working by many organisations – the civil service estates rationalisation plan, spearheaded by HM Revenue and Customs, for instance. “There are real benefits in these approaches, and not just economic ones, but there are also downsides, and what we haven’t done is looked at those properly,” she says.

Flourishing and suffering at work is a key area that the centre will be focusing on as part of its next three-year evidence programme, which runs to 2021.

It is one of seven centres and two affiliate members (representing Wales and Scotland) in the What Works network, all representing different issues including crime reduction, economic growth and ageing better. The What Works initiative, led by What Works national adviser and Behavioural Insights Team chief executive David Halpern, was described when it was launched in 2013 as “the first time any government, anywhere, has prioritised the use of evidence to inform policy and how it’s delivered on a national scale”.

These centres are “strange beasts”, Hey says, in that they act as the “bridge between knowledge and action”. The main job of her centre, a relatively small one, is to collate and disseminate the research on wellbeing – which Hey defines as “how we’re doing as individuals, communities and as a nation, and how sustainable that is for the future”. She adds: “We try and bring together everything that’s known and try and make sense of it in a way that I hope is as accessible, meaningful and useful as possible.”

She and her team also work with partners to identify and fill gaps in the research. The What Works Centre for Wellbeing has a core team of about 10 people, who share their headquarters with the Children’s Society in north London. Outside this core team there are four academic-led consortia working on themes agreed with partners. The London School of Economics is leading a programme looking at wellbeing across different ages, while Brunel University considers culture and sport, Liverpool University is researching community wellbeing and the University of East Anglia leads a consortium on work and adult learning.

In some areas Hey has been surprised by the limitations of the available evidence base – the impact on wellbeing of participating in sport and dance, for example, where there are “actually few studies”. She also says a lot of the cost information is missing from studies looking at measures taken to improve wellbeing, so the centre has had to retro-estimate some expenses.

Hey says she’s also realised that some findings that are “really well-established” in the academic community are less understood in the real world. Take losing your job, or being unemployed for a year or more. That this has a sustained and lasting impact on your wellbeing – more so than many other life changes – is something that academics think everyone knows, but many local authorities don’t know it, Hey says. She offers another example: a significant number of people are put off swimming for life after having horrific experiences as a child. “Everyone says sport’s good for you… how do we make that experience better?” she says.

Wellbeing in the civil service

Hey is a former civil servant: she joined government in 2000 and worked in nine different departments. Gaining an understanding of their various cultures, strengths and pressures was fascinating, she says. “But also, how each department sees the solution to a problem through its own levers is really interesting. So if you’re in the Home Office a policing solution is the one to have, or if you’re in Foreign Office a diplomatic solution is the one to have. And actually, the problem may be the same one that different people deal with in different ways.”

She was introduced early on to some of the concepts she now deals with on a daily basis. “My first job coming in was as a bill manager. I had to do a cost/benefit analysis of the changes to the electoral system,” she says. “Trying to value democracy is really hard! Luckily the Treasury just said, ‘Yes, here’s the money, you’ve costed it well, that’s fine’. But trying to do the cost/benefit analysis to something like that, that is social policy... actually [that’s something] policy officials deal with all the time.”

Another early experience – and “one of my first realisations that something was not right in policymaking” – was when she attended a meeting about publicly funded legal advice where decisions were being made with no reference to service users. “When you’re in a high state of emotion, how do you best get advice and receive information… that’s a staffing decision, how do you structure your services?”

A policy official for 15 years, Hey was always interested in how evidence and expertise fitted into the job. In around 2007, Hey helped set up the civil service policy profession. “We found about 30 different policy models depending on the organisation,” she says. “There are some common themes about being good at policymaking, and there are some skills attached to that.”

She adds: “Understanding what the policy job is as separate from the expert in the subject is quite helpful… That’s where I hope the What Works centres can come in, because they’re our collective global knowledge around this area.”

She doesn’t want evidence to displace the other factors at play in policy decision-making. “We’re not talking about evidence-based policy, we’re talking about evidence-informed,” she says. “Evidence will just be one part of what informs the decisions that are made: politics, our delivery issues – like how we physically do it, do the systems work, have you got the right people there? That’s totally legitimate.”

Hey has also long been intrigued by wellbeing from a staff perspective. She trained as a coach while she was a civil service manager, and became interested in how to bring about improvements in performance and staff wellbeing through analysing data such as staff surveys. One of the key findings in the area of staff wellbeing is that a huge driver of workplace stress is poor change management. “[The civil service has] got hugely better at it, I think it recognised from the People Surveys the effect it was having,” Hey says.

She wants to see more evaluation from employers, including small trials and testing at the margins. “I’m surprised people don’t do more, don’t even look at the management information that they collect and use that to understand what’s happening,” she says. For training programmes, for example, this could mean testing whether it’s actually worth live-streaming events, recording webinars, or providing refreshments. “If you’re going to have senior civil servants out of the office, training, how do you make the best use of their time?”

Her advice is to look at the research, and work out what makes a difference to learning. “There’s little things. Like feeling slightly cramped in a room is actually quite good – only slightly. You get a few complaints about accommodation but you get better networking.” It may seem trivial, she adds, “but performance improves through feedback, and that’s what evidence is”.

A good common outcome

Part of what attracted Hey to the centre, which is funded by several government departments and works with even more of them, was the opportunity to develop “a shared evidence base between departments”. She initially had her doubts about how much it could achieve. One reason for that was the word wellbeing – “Some people think it’s fluffy, there’s kind of an image problem to it,” she says. It’s also not always obvious what people understand by the term: “When you’re saying wellbeing, what is it you’re talking about? Are you helping people feel safe? Is it staff workload? Is it sense of belonging? Is it about relaxation and stress, or is it about something different?” she says.

One of the centre’s biggest successes, according to Hey, is the development of a common language about wellbeing and the ways of measuring it. The team has developed shared measures of particular drivers of wellbeing such as job quality and loneliness, following a piece of work done with local authorities, Public Health England and the Office for National Statistics. For civil service departments, consistent measures being developed on thriving at work will be important. These shared measures help organisations learn from one another, so “we’re talking about apples and apples rather than apples and pears”, Hey says.

The centre has also had some success in ensuring civil servants are encouraged to consider the effect of new policies on wellbeing. In March this year, the Treasury updated its Green Book – guidance on how to appraise and evaluate policies, projects and programmes – and the centre was involved in shaping the edits to feature wellbeing more prominently. A blog on the centre’s website gives an example of the implications of this: applying wellbeing analysis when considering options for tackling flooding will throw up wider issues such as community resilience (ensuring those living in a flood-prone area know where their elderly neighbours live) and community connection (making sure flood defences don’t block access and still allow for physical activity).

Despite the scepticism, Hey says there’s actually a “huge amount of robust science out there” on interventions that can boost wellbeing – and one of the challenges is to figure out where to begin. Wellbeing is complex, it’s multidisciplinary – combining elements of economics, sociology, psychology, epidemiology and more – and it can apply to individuals, as well as to communities, countries and internationally.

It’s a concept that’s becoming more popular the world over: the What Works Centre for Wellbeing has worked with teams from Kazakhstan to Mongolia. The United Arab Emirates has famously appointed a minister of state for happiness and wellbeing. “Quite a lot of countries are taking it more seriously as a measure of progress… we’ve had proxies – money, health and life expectancy are really good proxies actually – but they only take you so far,” Hey says. “I think once you’ve met basic needs… there is a more complicated challenge – and also how you sustain [wellbeing].”

Governments should continue to measure the harder economic and other objective outcomes of policies, Hey says, but subjective feelings and experiences are also important. She adds: “Wellbeing is a really good common outcome measure... you can often understand how you fit in and how you’re contributing as a department of health, education or wherever, but actually, how does that improve people’s lives?”

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