'Doing' wellbeing in the midst of a global pandemic

Student on laptop

We never imagined writing a comment piece focusing on wellbeing with the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, but here we are. Wellbeing is a topic we have been mulling over the past few years during and after the completion of our project evaluating the impact of The Royal British Legion (TRBL) Breaks Service. This was not a coincidence. Wellbeing awareness has been growing in public and private consciousness for a number of years, with notable celebrities and royals touting its importance. But what is wellbeing, exactly? Input wellbeing into any search engine and you will find various definitions, ranging from the WHO’s first attempt to diverge from the historically medicalised versions to Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory (SDT) rabbit hole. Most recent definitions take a holistic approach incorporating physical and mental health and wellbeing, social wellbeing, and the ability to realise and achieve one’s potential. 

The National Evaluation of TRBL Breaks Service: uncovering routes to wellbeing 

Our research confirmed what the literature already stated: wellbeing cannot be reduced to one single factor. Mental health is directly linked to physical health which is linked to social connectedness. Moreover, people thrive and achieve optimal wellbeing when they have a purpose and feel valued, which is characterised as part of eudaimonic wellbeing. Ryan and Deci would argue that this is in response to having 3 psychology needs met: autonomy, relatedness, and competency. In other words, people must have the means, ability, self-efficacy, and secure base to enable self-actualisation. 

Let’s take this one step further: what does wellbeing look like in the midst of a global pandemic? The government’s lockdown restrictions currently permit outdoor exercise to promote physical and mental health and wellbeing. Our need for social interaction under lockdown presents a different challenge. Ironically, our increasing reliance on technology was, perhaps until recently, often seen as an unhealthy addiction, responsible for the decline in face to face communication and inability to disconnect from our devices. Now, in the age of the COVID-19, this technology offers us a lifeline, allowing us to remain connected to family, friends, and vital services such as mental health support and telehealth communication. Through YouTube we can access fitness classes, through Zoom and Facetime we can connect with friends and family, and we can organise and mobilise community support for those who are vulnerable. 

A secondary finding from our evaluation highlighted the ways in which wellbeing is an interactive, reciprocal process. Within the hospitality/wellbeing model, we found that break centre staff identified the desire to “give back” or “make a difference” as the driving force behind the service they provided. This altruistic desire is characterised as a part of eudaimonic wellbeing. Despite the majority coming from a hospitality background, break centre staff members were acting above and beyond the scope of their roles. This level of service produced glowing feedback for the staff and the break centre scheme. Beneficiary commentary alluded to a service that transcended hospitality, ensuring that they felt secure, valued, and a sense of belonging. This was not your average seaside holiday. Furthermore, we learned that the impact made on beneficiary wellbeing was directly related to the eudaimonic wellbeing of the staff team. In fact, it appears this may be a codependent relationship. If the break centre staff lacked or failed to buy into the mission of the service would the outcome be the same? The data suggests that it would not. 

This begs the question: have we done ourselves a disservice in focusing on the individual in lieu of the collective wellbeing. If we are truly dependent on other people or systems to achieve optimal wellbeing, can we reduce this purely to an individualised metric and call it an accurate reading? Maya Angelou posed the question “If it is true that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, isn't it also true a society is only as healthy as its sickest citizen and only as wealthy as its most deprived?” How do we, as a society, support the collective wellbeing?

‘Doing’ wellbeing 

Wellbeing is a process, not just a state of being. We are either actively or passively “doing” wellbeing at any given time. Furthermore, it takes constant and consistent tending. Using physical fitness as an example, our fitness levels are typically in a state of flux, but we may strive to improve or maintain at any given point. This includes actively making choices to exercise, sit less often, and eating a healthy and well-balanced diet. It is not a linear process and it does not end when you achieve a set goal, such as reaching a certain BMI. It is not a perfect process, as you may feel justified in eating a whole pizza and side of chips after a gruelling training session. It is the process that matters. 

Bringing this back to our current predicament, we can imagine the dedication of frontline workers, such as the NHS staff, who have been deservingly lauded by the entire country. Their commitment, self-sacrifice, and passion are at the forefront in fighting this pandemic. But who takes care of them? We would argue that this responsibility does not solely lie with the NHS and the government, but with the community as a collective whole. The community has notably rallied in support. 

Fortunately, the term keyworker has been broadly applied to those who are not working in the NHS, but who are nevertheless just as essential. Food and equipment distributors, Royal Mail, supermarket employees, teachers, social and care sector workers, to name a few, have all played a valuable role in supporting individual and collective wellbeing. Let’s go one step further. Whilst the “non-essential” workers remain at home during lockdown, we have seen an incredible push to support those working on the frontline. So many are eager to show their gratitude, not just in complying with lockdown restrictions, but through gestures, both big and seemingly small. These gestures are not confined to supporting frontline workers or those deemed vulnerable, nor should they be. Reaching out to friends and family for that weekly Zoom chat, offering a smile to the stranger passing (at a safe distance) on the street, checking in with students who fear for not only their academic future, but their employment prospects after graduation, students checking in with tutors and lecturers to acknowledge the support and effort they continue to offer in an unprecedented time. As clichéd as it sounds, we are all playing an essential role in boosting the collective wellbeing. 

Where do we go from here? 

The key findings in The Royal British Legion report reflect these basic human needs. We all need to feel valued, connected, and have that sense of belonging. Many of the TRBL beneficiaries cited isolation and loneliness as the biggest challenge to overall wellbeing. Under lockdown restrictions, we have created ways to reduce loneliness, despite physical isolation. Social connectedness is vital to healthy wellbeing. TRBL beneficiaries were generally reluctant to engage with services designed to support social, physical, and mental wellbeing needs yet many also acknowledged the need for assistance. We not only need to ensure that people can access vital support services, but we must destigmatise the need for support. Lead by example. Open the dialogue. Reach out to those who may need help, but also be willing to accept offers of support. Furthermore, inspire others by sharing that you, too, are accepting help. Remember that wellbeing is a complex, interactive process and we are dependent on one another.

As the Nation imagines an uncertain future, both the education sector and the charitable sector imagine with them. Aware that their roles are subject to change, approaches similar to Theories of Change models will no doubt be called upon to help us adapt to the current and post-COVID 19 climate - whilst reinforcing commitment to their respective missions. Our research findings would suggest that models that truly practice inclusion, encouragement, and flexibility will work best alongside active listening and evaluation. Exploring new ways to support and teach students has been essential over the past few months and has also shown universities at their best, when they are innovative and progressive. Ensuring that all stakeholders feel valued as contributors to the process can have a profound effect on outcomes. Listen. Really listen to each other. It’s not enough just to believe in the university’s vision. We, the students, staff, researchers, lecturers, and the community as a whole are at the heart of the very institutions we are working together to preserve.

Parting words 

With this in mind now we are denied access to so many of our typical, go-to activities, we have to explore new ways to foster our wellbeing. Sign-up for that new language course. Try painting. Read that book collecting dust on your bookcase that you bought two years ago and you have been meaning to get to one of these days. Find meaning and purpose in what you do. Above all, consider how you can find meaning and purpose in helping others.

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