Now’s the time to gather momentum Analysis

Now’s the time to gather momentum

A white man with shoulder-length brown hair and glasses in a white shirt

By VicHealth CEO, Dr Sandro Demaio


Why we must build a common understanding of what a wellbeing economy can offer Victoria.

I’m sure that, like me, you’ve been part of personal and professional conversations throughout the pandemic about what a ‘good life’ looks like for our community, both now and into the future.

With many of the communities we live in and work with under extreme stress, we’re seeing pre-existing inequities deepening and having real and lasting impacts on people’s lives.

In the health sector and more broadly, ‘wellbeing’ is a term that is more and more commonly used to describe the idea of ‘a good life’.

When we talk about wellbeing at VicHealth, we see it as something beyond the absence of disease. It encompasses concepts of thriving individuals and communities, equity and social justice, environmental sustainability – as well as social, economic and cultural sustainability – and planetary health, and culturally diverse and enduring knowledges.

And core to that is an understanding that promoting wellbeing isn’t just about a good life for today’s citizens. We need to think about the long-term implications of policy decisions, and how they can lead to future generations flourishing in an equitable and sustainable society.

It has been clear for a long time to many of us that GDP is not an accurate measure of how we’re doing as a society. And it cannot indicate what life will be like for future Victorians.

The concept of ‘wellbeing’ is far more useful for understanding how we’re all doing, and, of course, how the planet around us and future generations will do as well. Shifting to a wellbeing economy approach can benefit everybody.

Full transcript

This video was produced for the 2021 roundtable event; ‘Integrating wellbeing into the business of government: The feasibility of innovative legal and policy measures to achieve sustainable development in Victoria’.

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The term wellbeing is pretty ubiquitous at the moment. You see it in so many government documents and newspaper reports. I get media alerts for wellbeing economy. And so often that more center than the media alerts telling me about the Hyatt’s latest spar retreat in the wellness economy, you hear it in government policies, in funders documents.

The term wellbeing is pretty popular at the moment, but almost that ubiquity is almost mirrored by a plethora of different understandings and definitions of wellbeing. Which is in a way really good because it means it’s an inclusive term that a lot of folks and different organizations and different actors feel can resonate with their own respective work. So that’s a really lovely aspect of that breadth. But I like to think of the duality of wellbeing.

I think they’re almost two poles of understanding around it. And one is this idea that wellbeing is very individualized and a lot of the measures that come along with that, are some of the subjective self reported wellbeing variations on the question of on a scale of one to 10, how happy are you, how anxious are you, how meaningful do you feel your life is? And happiness scholars have been working on that for decades and there’s a lot of evidence around that.

One of the concerns, oh I just put my hand up and say, one of the concerns I have with that work is often the policy prescriptions that come from that, and particularly the idea that happiness should be the preeminent policy goal is that they often very individualized.

They put the onus of change on the individual. So whether that’s through mindfulness classes or mental health treatment services or employability projects, it’s all about the individual to change. And it’s also about helping the individual survive and cope with today’s economic system. And of course, survival and coping is really important. That’s an immediate response, we need to help folks get through today and tomorrow and next week.

But I guess the other aspect of wellbeing is what I describe as system change. And that’s where, and this is where the well-being economy agenda is unashamedly situated. That says really, yes it’s important to help people survive and cope, but we also need to look upstream. And this is a conversation around understanding the drivers of people’s sense of anxiety, why there’s inequalities in who’s feeling most content, most in control of their lives. The circumstances that create dignified lives, quality of jobs, the macro economy in terms of inequalities, racial injustices, those sorts of questions. And of course the overriding setting in which we live our lives, our planetary home, what’s the condition of mother earth.

And so when you start bringing those questions to the table, you really look at that it’s a much bigger question than just focusing on the individual as the agent of change. And so the idea of the well-being economy is at its heart saying, we need to have the economy that’s designed really purposefully and concertedly to deliver collective multi-dimensional wellbeing.

And of which subjective self-reported wellbeing will be a part of it, but it’s not the be-all and end-all, and groups like the OECD, their wellbeing framework is very multi-dimensional over half OECD governments that have a wellbeing framework they’re all multi-dimensional.

And I think that’s really reassuring that it’s taking that broader sense of what’s important in really reforming and transforming the economic system.

Thank you. And you work with wellbeing economies and groups that are advocating or supporting or engage with wellbeing economies all around the world. Do they all look similar or are they all very different? Are they different in what they prioritize? They different in their structures? Are they different in their pathways of how they got there?

That’s a really great question. And I mean one thing to say is that no one has nailed this yet. And I don’t know if anyone ever really will get to a point and say, we’re here, we’re a wellbeing economy. We can sit back and crack open a beer and relax.

No I think that it’s by definition a journey and innovations and ideas will keep evolving and priorities will keep evolving. I guess there’s two levels to answer your question. One is that I do think there are some common, fundamental human needs that pertain to societies and individuals goals around the world. And we see that through deliberative conversations with people in very, very diverse contexts, when folks are given a chance to sit and reflect and really articulate what matters most to them, it is things like their family, their mental, physical health, sense of dignity, purpose, quality local environment.

So that’s almost what makes us unique, innately human and scholars like Manfred Max-Neef really speaks about fundamental human needs. And I think holding that as one of the ultimate goals of what our economy needs to be delivering is really important.

In terms of getting there, it’ll be really diverse. Everyone’s got a different starting point for countries like Australia or the UK, where I’m based, the idea of production and consumption systems will have to transform dramatically. So we’re not using so much ecological room. For countries in what people might term the global south there’ll be very different conversation. I think there are ideas for how to do this coming from all over the world.

There’s no GDP correlation with wisdom and knowledge, and particularly, I think first nations communities have got a lot to offer in, one of my favorite aspects is that seventh generation principle, really thinking long-term moving away from that tyranny of short-term with I think seen in global economies over the last few years. So there’s lots of different pathways. I think there are some perhaps common shared ideas that we can learn from countries that are having a go at this.

So one of my favorite examples is Wales here in the UK, they had a big public consultation about what the priorities around wellbeing for Wales would look like. They’ve now got an act of government that sets out the wellbeing of future generations act.

And I think what’s really cool about what Wales are doing is they’ve got a dedicated office and a future generations commissioner, and she’s a woman called Sophie Howe. And her job is to scrutinize all Welsh public agencies and draft budgets and policy proposals for how much they align with the seven goals that are set out in the act. And she will call out when they’re not aligned. She will name and shame, but she’ll also work very collaboratively with public servants and governments to help them realign and really focus on those goals.

Of course Australia will know really well that New Zealand’s exploring what a wellbeing budget might look like. One of the things I really like in Scotland, and it won’t have the name wellbeing in it, but some of the coolest policies that Scotland are doing is really cultivating business models that are aligned with delivering social and environmental benefit, whether that’s B corporations or worker cooperatives or social enterprises.

And there’s a dedicated unit within the Scottish government’s enterprise agency to nurture and support those sorts of business models. And they’re the sort of activities that governments need to be taking seriously if we’re to build economies that are in service of creating social justice and a healthy planet, which is the simplest way we’ve found to describe a wellbeing economy. And that comes from an Ozzy actually, social justice on a healthy planet.

Oh there you go.

Yeah, that’s Nina, yeah. 

That’s so helpful. I think it’d be really helpful for the conversations we’re trying to have today, which is really about looking at some of those other examples around the world, looking at what we’re already doing well in Victoria and in Australia and what are the next steps from there. So thank you for those examples. I guess one of my other question is we’ve got people here today from the community sector, from academia researchers, from the environmental movement, obviously government has an essential role to play, but I think it’s not just government’s job. It’s not just about and this is not just a government decisions so I’m interested in any reflections you have about what we as community organizations or advocates can and should be doing in this space both now and in the future?

– That’s lovely and I think there’s the role as individuals. And then there’s also the role working within everyone’s respective organizational space too. And they both matter. Everyone has a role to play, no matter your skill set, your sphere of influence, your experience, your background, your passions. We need so many people to be part of this conversation because it’s a really multi-faceted transformation we’re talking about here.

I often talk about the changes that we need to build a wellbeing economy, being a case of almost a 100,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. It’s not a simple flick of a light switch unfortunately. And so we need folks from all quarters, all sectors to be involved in this, but particularly thinking about perhaps, the non-government and non private sector community not-for-profit, third sector space.

One, I think there’s something really important about holding the vision and amplifying the voices of everyday people in articulating what it is that really matters to communities and holding that up as a bit of a mirror against some of the more usual, typical ways of talking about economic and national success. I mean, you turn on the morning news and you hear, is the economy growing. And the assumption is that that will automatically translate to good lives.

And yet evidence is that so much that read across, we can’t rely on that anymore and bringing into account all the science around planetary boundaries. We need to have a big question about using economic growth as the be all and end all of a successful economy. And we can have another conversation about that another time, but I think really just starting to challenge and unpeg and contrast those ideas of what an economic success is about.

I mean, our friends ANDI, Australia’s National Development Index, they did a survey a few years ago and said, huge majority of Australians don’t see themselves in the GDP figures. It doesn’t correlate with their visions of quality of life. And so I do think there’s a really important role for organizations that you’ll have there today really bring to the fore those visions.

There’s also something about that I think inherent, and I know this is really challenging, but that inherent collaborative nature of the folks who work in the third sector and that partnership approach. And I think there’s something that government can really learn from that because we need governments to be working outside their usual silos and departmental boundaries. And I think there’s a lot that can come from the third sector and just talking about how that can be done and just the fundamental importance of that.

And then there’s also the case of just getting on and building it and not asking for permission from government or business, just getting on and building it in respective localities.

Last year, VicHealth commissioned The George Institute for Global Health to report on how best to embed wellbeing into policy-making.

That report — Integrating wellbeing into the business of government: The feasibility of innovative legal and policy measures to achieve sustainable development in Australia — is an incredibly useful look at concrete examples of how complex policy change has been achieved internationally, and what factors could underpin a similar approach in Victoria and Australia.

Our hope is that by bringing together policy, practice and research experts from health, environment, community services and youth sectors, we can build a common understanding of what wellbeing economies can offer, and how they can be applied in Victoria.

It has been clear for a long time to many of us that GDP is not an accurate measure of how we’re doing as a society.

The Victorian Treasurer and the Federal Shadow Treasurer have already publicly stated their support for similar approaches, and we believe this is an ideal time to come together and build on existing momentum within Victoria, interstate and internationally.

If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that the social determinants of health are very real. The deep cracks of inequity, which we have ignored or thinly papered over for decades, have become unavoidable.

As we look to the future, we must take this opportunity to gather momentum, to gather allies, and to set our sights on a much healthier, fairer way of measuring progress and wellbeing within the context of our political economies.

I’m looking forward to being part of the conversation about what a wellbeing economy might look like in Victoria, both now and into the future.

This is an edited version of VicHealth CEO Dr Sandro Demaio’s opening remarks to ‘Integrating wellbeing into the business of government’: a roundtable event with VCOSS, VicHealth and The George Institute for Global Health.