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  • Rachel Adam

Measuring the impact of arts activity on wellbeing

Updated: Jun 2, 2022


Museums Northumberland bait is the Creative People and Places programme in Southeast Northumberland. Since 2014 we have been using the Warwick and Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS) to measure the impact of our programme on wellbeing at a population level.

Why do we use 'WEMWBS'?

Through our programme we are trying to achieve four things:

  1. more people taking part in arts and culture;

  2. more people making decisions and shaping the programme;

  3. positive impact on wellbeing;

  4. legacy of skills and people running their own projects.

As an ‘action research’ programme we needed a robust evidence base to measure progress towards the wellbeing element of this mission.

Back in 2013 we asked Northumberland County Council Public Health (one of our consortium partners) for advice, and the guidance was to use WEMWBS. It is a trusted methodology that uses positive, non-medical language and provides evidence of change at a population level.

What is WEMWBS?

WEMWBS was commissioned in 2006 by NHS Scotland and developed by the University of Warwick and University of Edinburgh. It is used to measure wellbeing changes at a population level. It is free to use for non-commercial purposes and you need to register with Warwick University

There is a self-assessment questionnaire that takes 5 – 10minutes to complete, and we tested this out as a staff team before asking anyone else to complete the questionnaire.

There are 14 statements that are scored from 1 – 5 and these are added up to give a total score. Scores between 14 – 42 are at the bottom of the range, scores of 43 – 59 are in the middle range and scores of 60 – 70 are in the high range, indicating a strong sense of wellbeing.

· I’ve been feeling optimistic about the future

· I’ve been feeling useful

· I’ve been feeling interested in other people

· I’ve had energy to spare

· I’ve been dealing with problems well

· I’ve been thinking clearly

· I’ve been feeling good about myself

· I’ve been feeling close to other people

· I’ve been feeling confident

· I’ve been able to make up my own mind about things

· I’ve been feeling loved

· I’m interested in new things

· I’ve been feeling cheerful

People are invited to complete the questionnaire twice – once early in a project and then again later. There needs to be at least two weeks between the first and second questionnaire and then the two scores are logged anonymously. We have been analysing the data twice a year and Lisa Blaney (Arts for Wellbeing Manager) has taken the lead in this work.

What does the dataset tell us about the impact on wellbeing?

From 2014 to 2021 analysis consistently shows between 72% and 75% of people were reporting an increase in sense of wellbeing. We now have a dataset of 512 fully completed WEMWBS and this shows an overall 15% increase in wellbeing.

How has this been useful?

It has provided assurance that the ambition within our 10yr mission is being delivered. Put alongside qualitative data (the rich quotes from people about how taking part has increased wellbeing) it helps to build a compelling story of the impact of taking part in arts and culture. This can be particularly useful in communicating impact to people from beyond the cultural sector.

Some of the voluntary sector partners we have worked with have gone on to build their own WEMWBS datasets and have used the evidence base to help secure funding for their work.

What have been the strengths and challenges of using WEMWBS?

The main strengths are that it is user friendly and works well in projects that are delivered over a long period of time. The data is straightforward to analyse and there is a manual made available once you are registered with Warwick University. However, it is worth remembering that WEMWBS isn’t suitable for one-off workshops or events because of the minimum two-week gap that’s needed between the first and second scores.

There are also a few challenges. It is often straightforward to get the first WEMWBS score, but it can be harder to get the second score if someone misses the session where this is being collected.

We have found that WEMWBS isn’t suitable for all groups. For example, it isn’t designed for young people under 13yrs (another option is the Stirling Scale) and because the questionnaire is language based it isn’t accessible for everyone.

Not all artists feel confident inviting people to complete a WEMWBS questionnaire, so sometimes there needs to be another person to support the process and this needs planning in. We have also found that WEMWBS works best ‘in person’ so during the pandemic we had to pause data collection.

What are the takeaway points of learning?

The WEMWBS dataset gives us confidence that we’re delivering on the wellbeing aspiration within our mission. However, it is only one part of the picture, and qualitative data is also vital to complement the quantitative evidence. It can be helpful to structure the qualitative feedback around the Five Ways to Wellbeing drawing out how a creative project enables people to Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Learn and Give.

Time needs to be factored into project delivery to collect the WEMWBS scores and there needs to be someone who can regularly analyse the data. Time is also needed to build a big enough dataset, but once this exists it can be extremely useful evidence of impact.

WEMWBS doesn’t do everything (but no scaling system does) and the impact of one-off events will not be captured. There are also other approaches to measuring wellbeing and one highlighted by our independent evaluators (Wavehill Research) is ‘ONS4’ which contributes to Office for National Statistics datasets.

Is there more information available?

As part of the independent evaluation of Museums Northumberland bait, Wavehill Research have written a case study about the use of WEMWBS to measure the impact on wellbeing. If you want to explore the topic further, this case study provides more detail about what we have learned over the last eight years.

(c) All images are by Jason Thompson apart from the one in Northumberland College which was taken by Dan Alecks


You can follow Rachel Adam on twitter here or subscribe to the newsletter for Museums Northumberland bait, the Creative People and Places programme in South East Northumberland.

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