Covid-19, Well-being

Three ways a well-being lens can aid COVID-19 recovery

7 minute read

By Lara Fleischer (, Statistics and Data Directorate (OECD)

At the beginning of March, the OECD launched its flagship report How’s Life? 2020, which draws on over 80 indicators to track whether life is getting better for people in 37 OECD countries and 4 partner countries (Figure 1). Since then, the world as we know it has changed dramatically, with a global pandemic that has claimed close to 400 000 lives so far, and brought about huge shifts in the way we live. While How’s Life? 2020 pointed to slow progress in some areas of well-being and persistent inequalities, it also highlighted many positive developments since 2010: life expectancy across OECD countries increased by more than one year, and between 2010 and 2017, household disposable income has shown an increase by 6 percent, while employment rates rose by approximately 5 percentage points. In the latest year on record, almost eight out of every ten adults in the OECD had a paid job, and the average annual household income was approximately USD 28,000. Surveys also suggested that people in 2018 were more satisfied with their lives relative to how they felt in 2013. Many of these well-being gains, long awaited after the 2008 financial crisis, are likely to have now been wiped out, as economies have come to a halt worldwide and health systems struggle to keep up with the impacts of COVID-19. 

Figure 1: The OECD Well-being Framework

Source: (OECD, 2020).

Some might argue that governments have more important things to focus on right now than people’s well-being. This would be short-sighted. While short-term policies are needed to save lives and livelihoods today, a simplistic framing of the debate in terms of public health vs economic recovery risks losing sight of other aspects of what matters to people’s lives. It would also ignore the debate on what kind of society we want to see emerging after this crisis.  As Sarah Davidson (CEO of the Carnegie UK Trust and one of the panellists at the launch of How’s Life?) wrote recently: “The questions about what matters to us; what we value now and in the future; what our governments measure, balance and prioritise; what evidence informs this decision-making, and how much say we have in that process, are immediate and urgent. The answers are going to matter a great deal in the days, months and years ahead” (Davidson, 2020). There are at least three ways in which a well-being lens can help governments in the recovery phases of COVID-19.

First: Identify pre-existing vulnerabilities to target support

The short- and medium-term impacts of COVID-19 increase the vulnerability of the most disadvantaged and risk compounding socio economic divides. These vulnerabilities stretch across most of the 11 dimensions of current well-being in How’s Life? 2020 (Figure 2). For instance, life was already financially precarious in many places before COVID-19 hit: in 2018, 12% of the population across OECD countries lived in relative income poverty, while the share of those reporting difficulties making ends meet in European OECD countries was almost twice as high, at 21%. One in five low-income households spend more than 40% of their disposable income on rents and mortgage costs. Further, more than 1 in 3 people in OECD countries are financially insecure, meaning they lack financial assets to keep their family above the poverty line for more than 3 months, should their income suddenly stop.

Living conditions at home, where most people are asked to stay now, is also less than ideal for some: 1 in 8 households in the OECD live in overcrowded conditions, almost 1 in 14 poor families do not have access to basic sanitation, and 1 in 7 households lack high-speed internet, making tele-working, education from home, social distancing and maintaining hygiene standards difficult. Lastly, 16% of adults and 13% of 15-year old students in OECD countries perform poorly on cognitive skills tests, potentially making it harder to find quality employment in the possibly more restricted post-COVID job market.

Figure 2: In what ways are people and households in the OECD vulnerable?

Selected deprivations in current well-being, OECD average, % of reference population

Note: Financial insecurity refers to the share of individuals who are not income poor, but whose liquid financial assets are insufficient to support them at the level of the national relative income poverty line for at least three months; difficulty making ends meet refers to the share of household self-reporting so; relative income poverty refers to the share of people with household disposable income below 50% of the national median; housing cost overburden refers to the share of households in the bottom 40% of the income distribution spending more than 40% of their disposable income on housing costs; the overcrowding rate refers to the share of households living in overcrowded conditions (EU definition); households without high-speed internet refers to the share of households without broadband internet access at home; poor households without access to basic sanitary facilities refers to the share of households below 50% of median equivalised disposable household income without indoor flushing toilet for the sole use of their household; adults and students with low skills refers to the share of adults who score at or below Level 1 in both PIAAC literacy and numeracy as well as the share of 15-year-old students who score below Level 2 in PISA mathematics, reading and science; depressive symptoms refers to the share of the population 15 years and over reporting having experienced a range of depressive symptoms in the past two weeks; negative affect balance refers to the share of the population reporting more negative than positive feelings on the previous day; low satisfaction with life and with personal relationships refer to the share of the population rating their satisfaction as 4 or lower (on a 0-10 scale); lack of social support refers to the share of people reporting having no having friends or relatives to count on in times of trouble; and having no say in government refers to the share of people aged 16-65 who feel they have no say in what the government does. Difficulty making ends meet and depressive symptoms refer to European countries only.

Source: (OECD, 2020).

There is growing evidence that socio-economically disadvantaged groups such as low-wage workers, those living with the threat of domestic abuse, and ethnic minorities are particularly affected by COVID-19 in terms of both death rates and well-being impacts (Brooks, 2020; OECD, 2020; OECD, 2020; ONS, 2020). In addition, COVID-19 has been found to be much more fatal for men (Brookings Institute, 2020). Taking these pre-existing inequalities into account can help policy makers to determine who will need help the most, and design and target policies accordingly.

Second: Shed a light on areas not on the immediate radar of government

A well-being lens can highlight the issues that matter most in people’s lives, some of which are not always at the forefront of decision makers’ minds. For example, quality of life includes people’s relationships, which can provide a vital lifeline in times of crises and social distancing. Yet, across OECD countries, 1 in 11 people say they do not have relatives or friends they can count on for help in times of need (Figure 2). Considerable risks of social isolation and loneliness for both physical and mental health need to be addressed by policy measures, for instance through regular check-ins by social services, civil society and volunteers, and the promotion of digital technologies for connecting families with each other and with public services  (OECD, 2020). People aged 50 and over are almost three times more likely to lack social support, relative to the young (Figure 3). Thus, in addition to being more physically vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19, older people are more socially vulnerable as well.

Figure 3: Older people have less social support

Share of people reporting that they have relatives or friends that they can count on to help them in times of need, by age, percentage, 2010-18 pooled data

Source: (OECD, 2020).

Since important drivers of subjective well-being, such as health conditions, employment and social connectedness are at risk, the current pandemic will affect people’s mental states, anxiety and stress. In 2018, around 7% of people suffered from very low life satisfaction in OECD countries, and 1 in 8 people experienced more negative than positive feelings on a typical day (OECD, 2020). Evidence from France, the United Kingdom and the United States points to the share of those reporting low life satisfaction increasing to more than 20% in March; those with existing mental health issues, including young people, experiencing worsening of symptoms during the COVID-19 outbreak; and people who are financially vulnerable experiencing more psychological distress than others (Keeter, 2020; Coconel, 2020; ONS, 2020; Young Minds, 2020).

Third: Build greater resilience in the systems that support well-being over time

The crisis can provide useful lessons for longer-term change to support the recovery and prepare for future shocks. How’s Life? looks at four types of capitals (economic, natural, human and social) that represent the systemic resources and risk factors that affect well-being over time. It remains to be seen whether possible structural changes (less travel for business and commuting, changing global production arrangements) will be permanent enough in nature to affect environmental sustainability positively. Zooming in on social capital (the societal norms, shared values and institutional arrangements that foster co-operation), it is clear that trust in others and in public institutions are both protective factors against systemic shocks like the current pandemic, and can be at risk in times of crisis. Research from the United States indicates that the Spanish flu led to long-term declines in interpersonal trust, and that COVID-19 fatalities were lower in counties with higher levels of trust (Aassve et al., 2020; Borgonovi, 2020). After a general deterioration in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, trust in institutions improved by 3 percentage points across OECD countries between 2010 and 2018, although still less than half of the population (43%) trusts their national government. More recent evidence from six OECD countries (Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Italy, Korea and the United States) suggests that institutional trust might have risen during the pandemic (Behm, 2020), but could nevertheless remain fragile in the months ahead. OECD governments will have to put people first in the aftermath of the crisis to maintain trust going forward. 

Figure 4: Trust in government has been unstable since the global financial crisis

Share of the population responding “yes” to a question about confidence in the national government, percentage

Source: (OECD, 2020)

For more information, including dedicated country profiles for each OECD member state’s well-being performance:

For an initial overview of the broad range of effects that COVID-19 will have on different aspects of people’s lives: