By Steven Farnham

The average American news report is filled with various “indicators” to tell us how well off we are, such as the Dow, Standard & Poor’s, GDP, or the state’s bond rating.  There are entire news programs dedicated to examining trends and the condition of the stock market.  Other reports keep us abreast of rates of poverty, the glacial ascension of the minimum wage, number of ppm of carbon in the atmosphere, sagging prices paid to farmers for milk, and the dwindling number of farmers still in business.

How does it make us feel to endure this daily diet of grim statistics?  More important, how accurately do these numbers reflect reality?  When the Dow is up, are we significantly better off?  If GDP is down, does it ruin our day?  Some argue that we would be a happier society if we measured the general health and wellness of our society in terms both more meaningful and connected to average Americans.  And that once such a metric is devised, we should strive to adjust the others to optimize our – well – happiness.  Radical notion?

Perhaps, but don’t tell that to Tom Barefoot and Kate Jellema, who lead the session entitled Measuring Vermont’s Well-Being.

Kate launched the talk with a list of major well-being indicators – of which this writer had previously heard only two.  I’ll leave it to the reader to speculate on why four out of six of them begin with the letter “Gee!”  The list includes:

GNH – Gross National Happiness

Gallup Healthways

GPI – Genuine Progress Indicator

Governor’s Dashboard

ECDRS – Early Childhood Data Reporting System

RBA – Results Based Accountability

After a bit of expository discussion on these, the presenters turned our attention to the “Nine Domains of Happiness”: Community Vitality, Culture, Education, Environment, Governance, Health, Material Well-being, Mental Well-being, Social Support, Time Balance, and Overall.  Well – eleven, actually – but hey, it’s a work in progress – okay?

Research reinforces how seriously we should examine these concepts.  Did you know, for example, that when a tornado renders great destruction to a community, GDP goes up?  Then how can we know that we always want higher GDP?  Tom explained that when we cut down a woodlot, we measure the value of the wood harvested, and of the resulting jobs and economic activity.  However, we do not place a value on the loss of erosion control, and other ecological losses associated with the harvest – let alone engage in some sort of cost analysis to determine if cutting the wood was a net gain or loss.

Tom explained to the group how the Governor’s Dashboard works.  Like the dash in an automobile, which gives useful information on velocity, distance from point of departure, or to destination, fuel supply, various engine parameters, et cetera, the Governor’s Dashboard provides information regarding the ship of state that we all should know in order to act on issues of importance.

In like manner, the Early Childhood Data Reporting System keeps us abreast of what issues need attention for Vermont children.  RBA (Results Based Accountability) is a bit more complex in that it isn’t merely a repository of data concerning the condition of some aspect of our community, but rather focuses on the effectiveness of various efforts and organizations which are intended to improve our collective lot.

Two methods are employed in RBA analysis: population and program.  As the names suggest, in the former, a population is studied either to learn its status, or to examine how well it responded to or benefitted from a particular initiative.  Examining statewide high school graduation rates is an example of “population-based” RBA.  Examining data related only to individuals involved in a particular program (or subset thereof) is “program-based” RBA, and might be used to determine if a program should be maintained, altered, or abolished.

Tracking information of this sort may not seem particularly new – we’ve had social programs and presumably been examining their effects for a decades – but never has so much attention been focused on how existing metrics mislead us, and how new ones need to be invented, and must constantly evolve to yield accurate and useful information.  Tom pointed out that “Data is getting bigger,” and it is – not only in volume – but also in potential usefulness if properly gathered and analysed.

About a half hour to forty-five minutes prior to the end of the session, Kate distributed a sheet of paper entitled, “Population Turn the Curve Report.”  Earlier, Tom showed us a rather jarring statistic.  According to Gallup Healthways, Vermont’s Well-Being in the “work environment” tanked from 2nd place in 2011, to 27th in 2012.  Loosely associated with Vermont’s apparent souring attitude toward work, The “Population Turn the Curve Report” appears to be a hypothetical Kate created to be employed as a session-ending exercise.  She broke the session participants into groups of five, and we began.  Below are the questions and results from the author’s group.

In question 1, the exercise presents this statement:

Indicator: In an annual statewide poll, Vermont workers agree or strongly agree with the statement “my workplace supports my health and well-being.”

The statement is followed by a graph showing a curve in rapid decay leading up to 2013, i.e. they do not agree.

Then the group is asked, if nothing changed (downward trend continues) is this okay?  We all agreed: No.

Question 2:  Causes?  The group brainstormed on the answer and listed multiple possibilities:

Spouse unemployed and/or has become emotionally or physically abusive as a result, Work demands, Part-time and/or no benefits, Layoffs, Mercurial management, Vermont is “at will” employment state, Bad commuting conditions, No mass transit, Unemployed family members move in, Sense of meaninglessness, Lack of creativity or purpose, Extra unpaid hours, Unappreciated, No continuity, No ownership, High turnover, Strategic understaffing, Accidents likely related to stress and/or exhaustion.

Question 2 (Second part): What additional data is desirable/needed?

How does Vermont’s divorce rate compare to other states?  School grades?  Unemployment? Use of antidepressants?  Use of illegal drugs? Does work dissatisfaction track with certain industries or geographic regions?  Fitness club memberships down?  Fast food consumption up?  Examine family life of dissatisfied workers.  Among high-dissatisfaction groups, what are most offending characteristics of work?

Question 3: Name “partners” who might play a role in improving the situation.

Industry associations, Managers and supervisors, Transportation/Ride share, Coaches/Consultants, Medical/medical health, Travel agents, Career coaches, Legislature, and Governor

Question 4: Possible solutions to “Turn the Curve?”  Include out-of-box options, low-cost and no-cost options.

Well-developed report of costs associated with high turnover (training, hiring), Job sharing – Flex time – Working from home, Employee ownership, Universal healthcare, Connecting fragmented workforces in “silos”

Low and No cost: Potlucks and common dining times, Free and open sharing between management and peers

Out-of-Box: Days off to work on something different, Show and tell, Music/entertainment, Napping area – Meditation – Yoga – Exercise, Month of choice off, Worker-owned co-operatives

No doubt, other groups may have identified similar answers, or may have selected entirely different ones.  Either way, having completed all of these, the groups of five all reconvened in the large session so we could answer…

Question 5: What are most powerful actions from the (above) list?  (There were more questions, but we didn’t address them.)  Here are some of the answers given:

Focus on the “dashboard.”  Use conference as annual recharge-don’t-get-discouraged event.  Reinstitute creative commons (acts of faith).  Eat with colleagues.  Employee ownership equals no turnover. Visualize what is desired and move in that direction – devote less to reacting

For this writer, employment often seems like the rock vs. hard place quandary – employment (by self or others) is challenging and difficult – sometimes grim.  For different reasons, unemployment is also challenging and difficult.  This session was most heartening.  It demonstrates that others face similar issues.  It’s empowering to know that there are answers (even if employers may not enthusiastically embrace them).  If nothing else, I departed with a more upbeat spirit than that with which I entered.

Steven Farnham is an artificer who lives in Plainfield, Ve