Wellbeing research

Our ACA approach is founded on research in the area of wellbeing development. We firmly believe wellbeing underpins all aspects of our lives: our mental and physical health, our relationships, our careers, our leadership and our impact. This is individual and collective – in families, groups, teams organisations and communities.

Below is a summary of our research and links to all of our publications.

We hear the term ‘wellbeing’ on a daily basis, in a variety of contexts and through a variety of media. As practitioners, managers, leaders, organisations, services and policy makers – we are increasingly concerned about wellbeing. But why is this? Is wellbeing decreasing, or are we simply more aware of it as a concept and our ability to influence it?

Whilst modernity brings new opportunities, we also face unprecedented levels of challenge to our wellbeing with increase demands on the human body to process information, fulfil multiple goals and manage online lives, climate change and pandemics, to name but a few. We experience these challenges at different times and at differing levels. Some sections of our society face these challenges to their wellbeing more than others. Many have come to view wellbeing as a human right, rather than a privilege.

So how do we develop wellbeing and what is our role as professionals supporting people, organisation and community wellbeing? How do we come together in new partnerships with professionals from different disciplines in multi-agency teams towards wellbeing development?

Our assumptions behind ACA for wellbeing development

  • It’s all about wellbeing! Because it underpins all aspects of our lives: our mental and physical health, our relationships, our careers, our leadership and our impact
  • It’s also all about context – acknowledging the world isn’t equitable and so people do not have equal access to wellbeing
  • So therefore, it’s about systems and structures: understanding that the worlds we live in are made up of different systems and structures that enable and constrain wellbeing. We are all in different situations and have access to wellbeing at different levels and at different times
  • And so it’s mostly all about agency: gaining control and realising choices to take action to navigate these systems and structures. Therefore, increased agency leads to increased wellbeing.

We can’t do wellbeing to people – but we can enable lightbulb moments!

  • Increased agency is achieved through becoming empowered in our lives
  • Empowerment is an intrinsic process: we can’t empower people! Therefore, we can’t do wellbeing to people
  • Thus, as professionals, our role is to enable, support and facilitate empowerment, increasing agency, amid people’s differing structures and systems, towards increased wellbeing (enabling lightbulb moments!)
  • We call this wellbeing development and have established a research based theoretical framework and a practice framework of how professionals support wellbeing development
  • Professionals across a broad range of disciplines are trying to support wellbeing development and are coming together to do this in new partnerships – thus, this is an interdisciplinary concept.

What is wellbeing? 

Wellbeing has many broad and different definitions coming from a range of perspectives. We have adopted a simple, practical definition of wellbeing based on how well we feel and how we can be in the world. In essence, wellbeing is feeling good and functioning well (based on Aked et al., 2008).

We deliberately focus on the functional aspects of wellbeing because it is holistic and is a combination of physical, psychological, emotional, intellectual and spiritual domains. Functioning well comes from a delicate balance of all of these domains in interaction with the societies in which we live. It is through this lens that we interrogate the concepts of social justice, agency and empowerment.  

Because wellbeing is about how we feel and function we can’t do wellbeing to people. You can’t give a pill for wellbeing. Similarly, we can’t make people well or fix them: tell them to feel good and function well. So how do we ‘do’ wellbeing development?

Social justice and wellbeing

Wellbeing is not equally experienced by everyone in society. Different groups of people have different levels of wellbeing. This may, for some people, be due to their access to resources such as money, education, health care, safe housing, employment. There is a link between relative disadvantage and a lack of wellbeing. We believe there should be equity in access to feeling good and functioning well. Conversely, the more well someone feels and the better they function, the more likely they are to contribute to society, creating a socially just world for others. Wellbeing is therefore inextricably linked with social justice and context, they reinforce one another (this is the outer cycle in the framework above).

Structure, agency and wellbeing

Social justice is created by the ‘structures’ in the world. These are the systems, laws, rules, social norms, etc. that both constrain and enable our agency. Agency is our ability to act within these structures and systems (the next cycle within the framework above). The access you have to money, education, housing, free speech and free choice affects how much you can achieve with your agency. With unlimited resources you may, perhaps, be able to achieve anything. But with the place you live, your family, your biology and finances all taken into consideration, there may be some limitations on what you can achieve. One key aspect of wellbeing development is becoming aware of these structures, this is the start of our awareness.

Structures enable or constrain what we can do, and our agency is about how we are able to act within those structures. When we have a high level of agency we are aware of the structures or situation, aware of the range of choices open to us, able to select a course of action and then act on it, again and again. This is taking control of our lives and as Ledwith (2011) said, “when people have control over what is happening in their lives (agency), their health and wellbeing improves”.

Empowerment and wellbeing

We develop agency through a process of empowerment. This is a complex concept that is often reduced to oversimplified terms. Empowerment is about a person’s sense of power. It includes multiple sources of power such as knowledge, roles, positions and resources.

We can not empower people as it is an intrinsic process (Maynard, 2011). As professionals we can support and facilitate this process, providing conditions that spark a process enabling people to develop their empowerment. Enabling empowerment is therefore central to the practice of wellbeing development. We define this process of empowerment in three clear phases:

  • Awareness – this is a catalytic process, sparking new thought or realisation, and wanting. Some people call these lightbulbs! The outcomes of which are increased consciousness of ‘this is who I am’, ‘this is what I like and dislike’, ‘this is what I am good at and not good at’ and ‘this is what I want and don’t want’.
  • Choice – this is the gaining of control and a commitment to a change process; to commit to using personal power to achieve personal gain. This catalyses a pro-active process of finding solutions to ‘how’ we get what we want.
  • Action – this is mobilising power into agency by taking action and making change. Agency isn’t a one off change; it is transferring learning of how we do this into multiple areas of our lives: continuously gaining more awareness, more choice, and taking more actions – sustaining our agency towards greater wellbeing. We have agency, we feel good and are functioning well. This is regarding oneself; both in and for society, as well as collective, for example when communities take action.

Our role as wellbeing development professionals is to enable and facilitate this process. The wellbeing development theoretical framework is a robust framework to enable us to understand and practice wellbeing development.

Our research behind ACA wellbeing development

We have five cycles of action research into wellbeing development carried out over ten years. Each of these cycles builds on what has come before, offering new insight, tools or models developed in practice. The key outputs are outlined below, with references to further reading. If you would like to know more you can sign up to one of our workshops/webinars.

The process of empowerment

The first action research cycle was carried out in Lucy’s Doctoral research (Maynard, 2011) that developed a model of the process of empowerment. This participatory action research explored the experiences of young women at risk of sexual exploitation and the professionals that were working with them, including Lucy herself. What emerged was a granular understanding of how people experience the process of disempowerment to empowerment and the notion that you can not do empowerment to people and we can not empower others. Thus the research questioned what is the role of the professional in the empowerment process towards better wellbeing?

You can find out more about the detail of the model of empowerment by booking on to a workshop/webinar and from our book (detailed further below): Promoting Young People’s Wellbeing through Empowerment and Agency: A Critical Framework for Practice.

Collaborative agency

The second action research cycle was developed in Kaz’s Doctoral research (Stuart, 2013) that explored the structures and agency enabling and constraining integrated professional practice. This participative action research was carried out in collaborative teams that aspired to achieve integrated care for children, young people and families between 2009 and 2013. The research established that professionals need to be jointly aware of their context, to make joint decisions, and jointly act in order to deliver integrated services. It proposed a model of collaborative agency derived from practitioner’s experiences and integrated action research and literature on agency. The model reflects the effects of a range of structures in shaping professional identity, empowerment, and agency in a dynamic.

You can find out more about the model of collaborative agency by booking on to a workshop/webinar and from this journal article: Collaborative agency to support integrated care for children, young people and families: an action research study.

Promoting young people’s wellbeing through empowerment and agency: A critical framework for practice

In 2018 we brought our two Doctoral thesis together into a third action research cycle to develop a theoretical framework to support children’s, young people’s, and family’s wellbeing. The model was tested, refined, and evidenced with case studies from young people, families, and practitioners.

You can find out more about the theoretical framework for wellbeing development by booking on to a workshop/webinar and from our book

Equalities literacy

In 2017-2020 Kaz worked with an international action research team and created a conceptual framework called ‘Equalities Literacy’. The framework was informed by the practice experience and theoretical knowledge of the international and interdisciplinary research team. It can be used as a practice tool in exploring and revealing socio-cultural in/equalities, applied to people, organisations and communities.

You can find out more about the equalities literacy framework by booking on to a workshop/webinar and from this journal article: Developing an equalities literacy for practitioners working with children, young people and families through action research.

An interdisciplinary theoretical framework for wellbeing development

In 2020 we wrote up a fourth action research cycle that applied the theoretical framework for wellbeing development across different settings to explore its relevance and expansion as an interdisciplinary framework. A series of focus groups and bricolage of data generated six themes which together supported the framework’s relevance across sectors and thus providing a shared underpinning for wellbeing development across disciplines and in multi-agency settings.

You can find out more about the interdisciplinary theoretical framework for wellbeing development by booking on to a workshop/webinar or reading our latest journal article (currently in press).

An interdisciplinary practice framework for wellbeing development

In 2020 we also wrote up a fifth action research cycle that mapped the practices of practitioners working to support wellbeing across various disciplines on to the above theoretical framework. This enabled knowledge mobilisation and produced an interdisciplinary practice guide based on common ways practitioners are supporting wellbeing development.

You can find out more about the interdisciplinary practice framework for wellbeing development by booking on to a workshop/webinar or reading our latest journal article (currently in press).

A coaching approach to wellbeing development

In 2020 we also aligned the wellbeing development frameworks with coaching, proposing that coaching served as an ideal approach to wellbeing development and the interdisciplinary frameworks were an important contribution to coaching.

You can find out more about a coaching approach to wellbeing development by booking on to a workshop/webinar and contribute to our on going research in this area.

The Practitioner Guide for Participatory Research with Groups and Communities

We are hugely committed to research in practice and want to do everything we can to make it more relevant and accessible to practitioners in order to increase our understanding, develop our practice and evidence our impact. We are currently writing a stripped back practitioner guide to participatory research to help break down some of the academic barriers we believe exist. We’re taking our first book (Evaluation Practice for Projects with Young People: A Guide to Creative Research) one step further with a more down to earth guide.

Copyright ACA Wellbeing Development 2020 – All rights reserved

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