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A new path to health and wealth - are New Zealand a lesson to us all?

Progressive New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern’s recent announcement that her country would become the first Western nation to base its government budget on well-being priorities is something we welcomed with open arms. Of course we would. 4and20million improve people, teams and work culture. It’s right up our street.

Someone of global prominence advocating a better, more optimistic approach beyond a myopic devotion to GDP growth was bound to appeal to a company focused on making work better. Yet the scorn that greeted the announcement in some quarters demonstrates the resistance that meets any suggestion that the way we currently measure and approach work should be modernised.

Why is it that we are so reluctant to countenance ideas that will make us healthier, wealthier and safer? Why is the notion of deviating - or even discussing a deviation - from GDP measures controversial? It’s almost as though humans are incapable of holding more than one idea in our minds at any one time. Fortunately, that’s not the case.

Let’s examine the central tenets of New Zealand’s new philosophy. The five priority areas that govern their budget-setting approach are mental well-being, child poverty, Maori career prospects, digital innovation and transition to a sustainable economy.

Sounds pretty optimistic, measurable and ambitious to me. Economic growth will facilitate meeting these objectives. These five areas don’t work in opposition to growth. If anything, surely they will supercharge it. But that’s not what many people seem to think. Let’s deal with the opposition to this a radical approach. There’s plenty of it.

Opposition leaders in New Zealand called it “slick branding”, a “disappointment” and “style over substance”. Understandable. That’s why they are the opposition. God forbid any display of collaborative weakness. Although I’d probably take issue with suggesting that a desire to reduce child poverty is ‘disappointing’.

Wider international scorn came from familiar sources, cynical shareholder (not stakeholder) capitalists and those who proclaim that you cannot prioritise people and growth at the same time.

As we’ve previously written - that’s not the case. See our previous blog - Fighting for the soul of work.

As noted in Lab Rats by Dan Lyons - there are lessons to be learned from companies whose employees remain happy over time. Forbes calls them Legends. Solid, strong, dependable companies that have consistently created value for themselves, their people and their economies. Cisco, Marriott and Four Seasons, Nordstrom all fall in this group. Hardly touchy-feely types. Great Place to Work boiled down the traits that were most prevalent in these and other successful companies - trust, pride and camaraderie.

They treat their employees exceptionally well. That means the things that actually affect your well-being. On-site childcare, paid sabbaticals, health benefits, good holidays. Things that cynical commentators would decry as ‘costs to the business’ rather than facilitators of growth.

So surely it stands to reason that nations can learn something from these successful companies?

Time to assess the UK’s warm and welcoming approach to New Zealand’s exciting concept. Let’s start with The Telegraph.

Oliver Wiseman wrote a particularly dismissive rebuttal entitled Jacinda Ardern’s trendy “wellbeing” metrics are no way to assess an economy. (Even the quotation marks are cynical!). Within the (dis)missive there were a couple of sentences that are taken as gospel - yet only because they remain unchallenged. Here’s a paragraph that makes a solid, superficially inarguable case:

“Political decisions that put other considerations ahead of growth are all around us. What was the establishment of the National Health Service other than a step to boost wellbeing? We don’t allow free entry to major museums because it makes us economically better off.”

Let’s take the last point. I’ll be blunt. And I’ll argue precisely the opposite. The free entry to museums does make us economically better off.

It’s this blinkered, unimaginative, ‘cost-of-everything-and-value-of-nothing’ statement that denies the benefit that comes from great swathes of the population actually visiting those museums in the first place. Without thinking too hard, it’s relatively easy to appreciate the enjoyment and creative benefits that come from exposing yourself to the best our arts have to offer.

Yet the argument isn’t a soft one. Free entry is economically beneficial. The Arts Council paper - The Economic Assessment of Museums in England - demonstrates that the sector is estimated to generate £3 of income for every £1 of public sector grant (based on £0.66bn of funds allocated). That’s direct economic benefit. It doesn’t take into account the indirect economic benefit including tourism, local economic development, learning and skills, community development, improvements to health and wellbeing and cultural diplomacy.

So the claim “we don’t allow free entry to major museums because it makes us economically better off”. Well actually, we do. And beyond that, it makes us culturally richer, happier and feel better. So if The Telegraph is wrong about this, perhaps Jacinda might have a point.

Scoffing at new ideas is nothing new. Particularly if you’re British. We have a good record...

A British Parliament Committee noted in 1878 that Edison's light bulb was "good enough for our Transatlantic friends... but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men."

According to Atlas Obscura, in the early 1750s, people hurled trash and insults at Jonas Hanway after a recent trip to France. The reason? He was the first man who used an umbrella in British streets. New ideas are inevitably challenging. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth a shot.

New Zealand’s new approach challenges established ways of thinking. But to dismiss it out of hand - untested - when there is such enormous potential for success is naive. In a world crying out for optimism, new ideas, more engaged workforces and a better work-life balance, this proposal seems eminently sensible.

Jacinda Ardern is clearly savvy enough to use this approach to boost her country’s growth prospects. By ensuring that New Zealand has become the first Western nation to base its government budget on well-being priorities, they’ve generated headlines and prompted discussion. The announcement will also act as a recruitment beacon for talented individuals who want to ply their trade in a country that places value on something beyond archaic, unsatisfactory metrics that mean little to everyday workers.

This is a stride in the right direction to improving the way we approach work. Something that’s sorely needed. It’d be great to at least discuss the merits of the approach.

What do we have to lose?

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