Of course you noticed: we tried to make sure that you couldn’t miss it. On Friday the University formally opened the Advanced Well-Being Research Centre. After five years of hard work, the handsome new building at Attercliffe is open. It could be the single most important investment anyone will make in the north of England this decade.
In so many ways we are fortunate: technologies at home and at work have transformed the way many of us live and work. We can do so much: travel more easily, call up entertainment at the press of a switch. But we’ve designed out of daily lives the very things which were drivers of good health. We’ve designed out exercise and movement. And it’s now clear we’ve done so at enormous cost: advanced societies around the world face an epidemic of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, arthritis, cancer and depression. Together they are placing unsustainable pressure on the health and social care system. Inactivity costs the UK economy £15billion per annum. Around the world it’s estimated to cost 2% of global GDP: the difference between economic growth and depression.
At the same time, we have developed enormous sophistication in our understanding of how to enhance well-being and physical performance. The sciences of sports exercise, sport engineering and sports psychology – core strengths of this university – are exceptionally sophisticated. We know an enormous amount about how to enhance physical well-being. Thus far, much of that science has been focused on elite athletes and their performance, but there’s no reason why is should not be deployed in the service of a much bigger goal: enhancing population health by finding ways to put well-being at the core of patient treatment pathways, medical practice and – the biggest prize of all – everyday life. Just as we have designed movement and well-being out of everyday, so we can design it back in.
The AWRC is Sheffield Hallam University’s answer to the gap between the challenge of worldwide inactivity and the promise of improved interventions. The AWRC will be a trailblazer in researching, designing, developing and disseminating practical solutions to the crises we face in this country and around the world. It’s a modest government investment – just under £15m in capital funding. But the potential to do good is enormous. The AWRC’s mission is to prevent and treat chronic disease by addressing the social, behavioural and economic determinants of health, creating equitable and active communities for all. The AWRC is an investment in advanced research which will make a real difference. It’s been the result of initiatives right across the university. Professor Steve Haake saw this idea from conception. Professor Rob Copeland, the Centre Director and his team are shaping an academic centre of real importance. The university’s finance, estates, planning and facilities team have done an exceptional delivery job.
The solutions to what are – essentially – diseases of modernity aren’t going to be found in a single agency or discipline. Modernity is a fact: there aren’t enough resources; sedentary work dominates; screens are a fact of life. Individually, we know that we should be more active, we should move more, more often. But we don’t. The challenges of changing behaviour depend on bringing together multiple disciplines: health academics, sports engineers, digital technologists and psychologists, taking what we know works – in the way technologies, for example, have shifted elite sports and working out how to translate that into population health; looking at the conditions which shape public health and working out how to scale it; looking at the interface between technology, innovation and everyday life. The AWRC is a university’s bold response to a major social challenge. As we get this right, this will be government’s most productive investment of the decade: in health, in social change, in innovation.
It is important to emphasize that the AWRC is not just about health outcomes, it is an investment in social justice. The AWRC is deliberately located on the border between some of Sheffield’s exceptional physical exercise assets, including the English Institute of Sport, and some of its most deprived neighbourhoods. Innovations designed to improve our health need to tackle health inequalities and close the staggering 20-year gap in healthy life-expectancy between the poorest and richest wards of Sheffield.
Entirely coincidentally, but quite rightly, the launch of the AWRC coincides with this week’s Healthy Hallam week, and the launch of the university’s Healthy Hallam Champions on 20 January. Healthy Hallam Champions are members of the university’s staff who support colleagues to prioritise wellbeing and promote the now wide range of support services the university makes available. They are not experts or counsellors, but they are briefed and supported to help look out for early signs of mental health issues, model healthy behaviour and signpost colleagues to resources available.
As staff will already have seen, there is a timetable of events to mark Healthy Hallam this week including: parkrun, yoga, boxercise and dodgeball. It’s an important part of our Healthy Hallam, Healthy Future staff wellbeing programme, built around the five steps to well-being – connecting, being active, learning, giving and mindfulness. The current display just inside the city campus main entrance on Hallam Square summarises them. Behind them sit a range of wellbeing resources, including the Employee Assistance Programme, online and face to face counselling services including through the Big White Wall service, the chaplaincy, the champions network and the university counselling services.
One of the challenges for the AWRC, and for any institution is the gap between what is offered and what is taken up, between what we know and what we do. We all need help and support, in a culture where well-being is highly regarded but we all, also need to take some responsibility for our own wellbeing. University are collections of individuals but they are also communities where social networks are key to both physical and mental health. The AWRC is our research response to the challenge of population health; our Healthy Hallam, Healthy Future programme is part of our institutional response.