Not just window dressing: how a true ‘wellbeing economy’ can tackle urgent social and environmental challenges

The concept of the ‘wellbeing economy’ – where the economy is designed to serve the wellbeing of the people and planet rather than the other way around – has captured the interest of many governments. However, there is a danger it will be adopted as mere policy ‘window dressing’ rather than heralding true change, experts argue in a paper published today.

The paper appears in a special issue of Public Health Research & Practice, a peer-reviewed journal of the Sax Institute, focused on ‘public health, wellbeing and future generations’. The paper’s authors, led by Professor Gerry McCartney of the University of Glasgow, say that many governments, businesses and organisations have expressed a commitment to a ‘wellbeing economy’ – a broad term encompassing alternative approaches and including the conventional focus on GDP. However, they warn it is not at the required scale or urgency to address current global crises.

They argue that the wellbeing approach risks being undermined by its delivery, with some governments simply paying lip service to the concept or implementing it only in isolated parts rather than as a part of a comprehensive shift.

The authors point to examples such as the Australian Government’s “Measuring What Matters” initiative, which so far seems limited to a consultation largely focused on indicators with “no sign of how these will subsequently shape policy making”.

The authors propose six new criteria for judging strategies on progress towards a true wellbeing economy, and outline examples of genuine wellbeing economy approaches. These include creating workers’ cooperatives, creating citizens’ assemblies to determine key economic decisions, expanding free public transport to shift away from individualised transport, and introducing wealth taxes and debt jubilees.

“The task that follows is to shape economies as in service of social and environmental wellbeing rather than position the wellbeing of people (let alone the planet) as necessary for economic outcomes,” the authors write.

Other articles by world leaders in this field further explore the focus on wellbeing as a driver of policy development and the opportunities and challenges of the wellbeing agenda for public health. A paper written by experts from the World Health Organization provides an overview of the WHO’s efforts to promote wellbeing as a whole-of-government approach to meet complex social, environmental and public health challenges, particularly through its foundational Geneva Charter for Wellbeing and the recently adopted Global Well-being Framework.

Nations need to move beyond rhetoric and make concerted efforts to bring sectors and stakeholders together to define problems and solutions, the authors argue.

“The complexity of the challenges affecting public health has no borders and requires a multifaceted response. A wellbeing approach provides a critical pathway to bring various sectors and stakeholders to act in a coordinated and coherent manner,” they write.

Other papers look at:

In an editorial, the issue’s Guest Editors Associate Professor Colin Sindall, Professor Tony Capon and Julie Boulton urge the public health community to look beyond the rhetoric on wellbeing to what is occurring in practice and to assess where the opportunities and challenges lie.

“Integrating a wellbeing approach with the public health agenda will be a challenging endeavour, partly because shifting to a wellbeing society/economy may well mean a significant reorientation away from the status quo and prevailing models of inequitable and unsustainable economic growth.”