We’ve always done it, so why don’t we measure it?

Today the Centre Director, Nancy Hey, is speaking at the Healthy Stadia conference. She’ll be sharing the findings from the research of Samir Singh Nathoo, Community Development Officer at Arsenal in the Community and Clore Social Leadership Fellow. Samir spent three months as part of his fellowship at the Centre, talking to community organisations in Islington. 



Download Samir’s sector perspective: a wellbeing lens in the third sector (April 2017)


When I became a Clore Social Leadership Fellow, there were two questions I wanted to answer.

Having worked for a decade and a half in education, equality, disability, health, social inclusion, heritage and charitable initiatives for mostly young people across north London, I wanted to know: How can, and why should my organisation, Arsenal in the Community, measure wellbeing?

I also spoke to the voluntary and community sector in Islington to find out whether the local voluntary and community sector consider themselves to be delivering wellbeing outcomes, even if they are not currently measuring them?

The timing for my research at the What Works Centre for Wellbeing was perfect: the first batch of evidence from the research teams at the Centre on music and singing interventions was published in November 2015, with guidance for community wellbeing due later in 2017. The London Borough of Islington is looking at wellbeing measurements for its third sector and the 2016 Department for Culture, Media and Sport strategy has wellbeing at its heart.

We’ve not been measuring what we do
To jump straight to the core of my findings: a real revelation for me is that both Football In The Community and the voluntary and community sector have not been measuring what we actually do: mainly improving wellbeing.

Wellbeing is almost too obvious an outcome for community organisations: pensioners lunch clubs, football tournaments, social action events, these all lead to increased community wellbeing. We know that, we see it in our work on a daily basis.

But we don’t measure it, especially in smaller organisations. We’ve not even realised we could measure this in a meaningful or systematic way, and ask for funding to do it.

Wellbeing seen as a ‘soft’ outcome
Community wellbeing (linked to social capital) is about, among other things: feeling safe and supported; recognised and appreciated; having a sense of belonging; opportunities and a sense of purpose; happiness, enjoyment and fun. Often, these have been assumed, and seen as inherent and ‘soft’ outcomes, compared to things like qualifications or attendance, and so we don’t measure them.

We, of course, still have to show hard outcomes, like employment rates, but we also need to measure how we got there: for example, by creating a greater sense of confidence, belonging, safety and local trust.

Wellbeing doesn’t require new questions and measurement
Outcomes measurement is nothing new, but wellbeing outcomes have been overlooked and underused, despite offering us not only a better dataset, but also a more insightful way to show our impact and tell the true story of how we make a difference. And, best of all for overstretched community sector staff and volunteers, it doesn’t require new questions and measures: they already exist in the form of the ‘ONS four’ (with guidance on how to insert them into your surveys) and other pre-existing wellbeing and life satisfaction survey questions.

A real strength of a holistic outcomes approach, as opposed to narrow traditional outputs around, for example, health or employment, is that any organisation can choose what is most relevant to their field of work or local community.

In particular, where community organisations are delivering across a wide range of themes, a wellbeing approach can be a common currency. Two very separate health and employment projects could have the same wellbeing outcomes, which allows for better comparison and integration into the wider organisational aims.

A wellbeing lens helps us re-focus on what really matters
I have long-held frustrations with our deficit approach in the community sector. It is not a ‘tackling gangs’ project that we deliver; it’s one that makes young people feel part of something, and gives models for healthy relationships, and as a consequence may give them options other than joining gangs.

Within the sector, we talk of disadvantaged young people, but this is looking through a narrow economic lens. In fact, if we use a more holistic wellbeing lens, we are working to stop them becoming disadvantaged. Likewise, we may think we are stopping loneliness and isolation when we run an older people’s lunch project. What if we considered it a ‘community spirit’ project, instead? How does that re-focus us on the bigger goals of our organisation?

A wellbeing lens can help us to focus on the positive. It’s a way to shift to a preventative approach, rather than just focussing on the problem.

Above all, viewing our work through a wellbeing lens is about looking at what really matters to the people and communities we serve.

When I talked to those working on the ground, they were enthused and excited by the idea of a wellbeing lens. This is key when evaluation and measurement has often been viewed as a cumbersome burden of reporting and box ticking, usually as part of funding requirements.

Support and leadership is needed for this from the Local Authority and within the Sport For Development sector. There are many ways to measure impact out there and the vast choice is often part of the barrier to doing this in the first place.

The Centre is a bridge between knowledge and action, and I encourage all those working with communities to consider viewing their work through a wellbeing lens and to measure wellbeing outcomes.

For the purposes of my report, I am taking Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) to also include Football in the Community (FITC) and the Sport for Development sector. Any recommendations related to the VCS are therefore applicable to FITC.

Wellbeing training at work and wellbeing: what works?

Olga_TregaskisFollowing the publication of our recent briefing on what makes a learning at work and wellbeing , we hear about the systematic review of the evidence from Professor Olga Tregaskis, part of our Work and Learning research team at Norwich Business School, University of East Anglia.

The joy we feel when we master a new skill; the sense of accomplishment we get from ‘a job well done’; the buzz we get from helping others; or the fading of our anxieties as we see solutions yield results. This is wellbeing.

We might reasonably expect, then, that training that provides a route for employees and leaders to master their skills and knowledge base would yield dividends for wellbeing. However, in reality the evidence is conflicting.

As part of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, we carried out a systematic review of all the available evidence on learning at work. It looked at all countries comparable with the UK, and started with an initial pool of over 4,000 studies, which we whittled down to the most relevant and methodologically robust.

The evidence tells us that what is effective is wellbeing training focusing on developing an employee’s personal resources to cope with high demands. The evidence base is robust and we know that it works across a range of industry contexts, at least in the short-term. However, we also know that when the route causes of these demands stemming from poor job quality, are not addressed then wellbeing diminishes. This makes it clear that personal resources training is not enough on its own.

The specific focus of effective studies was diverse: problem solving, psychological flexibility, sleep training, happiness training, mindfulness approaches, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), stress management, resilience training, meditation awareness training (MAT), relaxation training, psychosocial skills training, empowerment and life skills. Since all of these reported positive effects this would suggest that the particular focus of this kind of training is not important.

When it comes to professional training, the evidence is weaker. Much of this type of training enhances learning of specific work and professional skills; what’s lacking is spillover into enhanced worker satisfaction or reduced anxiety in work.

In the research, we looked at interventions that focussed on developing work competencies, alongside wellbeing, through improving work skills on conflict management training, psychosocial intervention training and workforce development to equip staff to deal with stress.

One of the success stories in this area studied by Leon-Perez, Notelaers, and Leon-Rubio (2016) was an example of a training program on conflict management for 258 health care workers. Staff were voluntarily enrolled in the training program which was delivered in eight three-hour group training sessions over the course of four months and a further three-hour follow up session two months later.

Participants were trained to deal with conflict at work with colleagues and patients and their families, the course involved:

  1. emotion management
  2. interpersonal communication and assertiveness skills
  3. problem solving skills.

In comparison to a control group of 243 health care employees in similar roles, the group that had received training reported less conflict with staff, patients and relatives. This was further supported by fewer recorded absences from work and fewer requests for third party mediation in conflicts at work. The training programme was also effective in reducing complaints from patients. This underlines the potential of learning interventions where professional competencies overlap significantly with wellbeing outcomes.

Perhaps the most surprising finding in our review is the unclear evidence of the impact of leadership training, or training that’s part of wider organisational change programmes. Given the strategic significance of leadership training and change programmes to organisational performance, the omission of evidence on their impact on employee wellbeing is considerable.

Two key explanations for the conflicting results with leadership training seem to lie in design and the wider context.

Firstly, the design of the programme: those  that showed an impact on wellbeing used more extensive adult learning principles. These included group-based peer to peer learning alongside self-directed learning.

Secondly, many of the leadership programmes took place in a wider context of change, where a climate of major organisational change, job insecurity and high stress/demands are cited as potential reasons why the learning intervention was not successfully implemented.

Even where the evidence showed unequivocally positive impact – i.e. developing employees’ personal resources – there are lessons to be learned on improving how training is carried out and supported.  Of the four studies that showed no effect, three of these studies used online, computer-based methods that involved self-directed learning, one of them also included some offline support but this was not really used. Poor engagement with the learning process due to a combination of the self-directed nature of the environment and competing work demands were likely to be key factors explaining the lack of impact.

Given that most of the new learning we do as adults, beyond school, takes place in the context of work, the potential for training and development to contribute to our wellbeing is a real opportunity. Yet the evidence suggests our learning programmes, whilst increase our works skills or our personal resources in the short term, are not necessarily making us happier. Can we design for wellbeing as well as learning, which could deliver sustainable workforce capability for the future.

Mindfulness in the workplace: The state of the evidence

Tim photo 1Next Tuesday 18 April the Centre will be sharing the fourth in our series looking at the evidence on wellbeing and work. Last week, we published learning at work, a briefing on different wellbeing training approaches and their impact in a range of workplaces. In this blog Tim Lomas, a lecturer in positive psychology at the University of East London, takes an in-depth look at the evidence one training identified in our review: mindfulness.

It is nearly 40 years since Jon Kabat-Zinn created his pioneering Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme for chronic pain, and it would probably not be overstating the case to say that mindfulness has since become culturally ubiquitous in many countries.

Based on the Buddhist notion of sati, mindfulness has a potent twofold meaning, referring to:

  • a form of non-judgemental present moment awareness that can be beneficial to wellbeing
  • meditation practices designed to help people cultivate this state.

Such was the success of MBSR that it began to be used in relation to other clinical populations and issues, and soon gave rise to other mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs), such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy designed to prevent relapse to depression. Since then, its use truly started to proliferate, used across a wealth of contexts, from schools to prisons to workplaces.

My colleagues and I looked specifically at the workplace in a new systematic review of empirical studies of mindfulness in occupational settings. Casting our net widely, we were not only interested in Randomised Control Trials (RCTs), but any peer-reviewed paper that reported on data in relation to mindfulness, including correlational and qualitative studies.

Our aim was also broad: in addition to exploring the impact of mindfulness on standard mental health metrics, like measures of stress, we also sought data on any outcome relating to wellbeing, for example, job satisfaction and performance.

An initial search yielded 721 potentially relevant papers. On closer inspection, this was winnowed down to 153 papers that met our inclusion criteria. These included 112 intervention studies – i.e. featuring participants completing an MBI – including 48 RCTs, and 41 non-intervention studies. These involved a total of 12,571 participants.

The studies covered a range of occupations, although over half, about 82, involved healthcare-related occupations. Overall, the quality of these papers was not optimal, with many failing to adequately report key details, such as the details of the MBI. What’s more, there was a great range of differences among the studies, both with respect to the MBIs used and the outcomes assessed. This made comparison difficult.

However, despite these issues, there were enough high quality trials to allow some tentative conclusions to be drawn.

Firstly, mindfulness was associated with good mental health outcomes, particularly with respect to anxiety, stress, and distress, although the results were more equivocal for burnout and depression. In addition, it was associated with a range of other metrics pertaining to wellbeing, including physical health, relationships, emotional intelligence, and resilience, as well as various aspects of job performance.

That said, it is worth noting that mindfulness may not suit or benefit everyone, and indeed may be counterproductive for some people at certain times (e.g., research has found that people dealing with particular mental health issues may have difficulty introspecting in the way encouraged by the practice, and could feel worse as a result). As such, if offering it in occupational settings, the evidence suggests that this should be done carefully, sensitively, non-prescriptively, and through skilled and experienced teachers.

In that respect, organisations interested in implementing MBIs should check the latest guidance offered by leading institutions such as the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. Despite such caveats, there is a growing evidence base to suggest that mindfulness can have real value in occupational settings, enhancing wellbeing and performance across a wide range of domains.

Learning at work and wellbeing: what works?


Click here to download the new Learning at Work briefing

Or view all the briefings in the Work series so far


What does the new briefing on learning at work tell us about how we best develop and learn in our workplace, whether it’s an office, hospital ward, factory or anywhere else?

The main message from the research, which looked at 41 studies, is that wellbeing training works, at least in the short-term. And if you’re torn between getting in a mindfulness trainer or Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, or any of the other 15 wellbeing courses listed in our briefing for your work, the evidence shows that they all have a positive impact.

What’s more, even professional development training, which doesn’t explicitly focus on wellbeing as an outcome, could have wellbeing benefits. This is especially the case where professional skills overlap with wellbeing skills. For example, conflict management training for healthcare workers to help them deal with challenging situations with patients was also effective in reducing conflict with colleagues, improving staff wellbeing and performance (Watson et al., 2017; Leon-Perez et al., 2016). The evidence base needs to be developed here, because much of it comes from the health sector, but findings indicate there are no adverse effects.

What did seem to affect the impact of workplace learning was whether the training – regardless of whether it’s wellbeing, professional or leadership – had interactive elements. This could include dialogue with a learning facilitator, or peer-to peer learning such as group reflection or discussion. Each of the successful online trainings incorporated these kinds of social elements to the learning process alongside online delivery. Self-directed e-learning alone was found to be less effective at improving wellbeing. Although, again, we need to to see more evidence for this finding: since the original studies our review draws its evidence from were carried out, there have undoubtedly been advances in technology and how e-learning can be delivered.

This chimes with the broader evidence base on learning and wellbeing, which tells us that the opportunity to reflect, share experiences, learn from others are vital adult learning principles, beyond the educational outcomes.

There’s a caveat to the review: much of the evidence focuses on job roles that place a high demand on social relationships in service delivery, such as carer, health, education or sales roles. We need to build the evidence base for job roles where social relationships, while important, may not be the primary focus, for example in the technology or creative industries.

And then we come to the other main takeaway from the briefing: training employees to cope better is not the end of the story. Wellbeing is highly dependent on job quality: the tasks which staff do day-to-day and their experiences on the job. This includes our relationships with our colleagues or clients, and the ability to influence workload and decisions.

Employers need to make sure any wellbeing training is part of a larger programme of improving job quality. And we’ll be publishing a new briefing on what works to improve job quality later this month.