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The Five Domains of Wellbeing: a new framework for helping people make lasting, sustainable change

March 23, 2022

Ask five people to define “wellbeing” and you’re likely to get five different takes. Some more nuanced and insightful than others. For the Way Finders’ teams that are devoted each day to helping clients achieve greater wellbeing and stability—Housing Support Services, Rental Assistance Programs, Housing Education Services—having a clear vision and shared language regarding wellbeing are key. A recent training course helped impart an actionable roadmap for both.

Back in 2019, Senior Vice President of Housing Support Services Cheryl LaChance attended a local meeting that piqued her interest. “An organization called the Full Frame Initiative gave a twenty-minute snapshot to providers about what they define as the Five Domains of Wellbeing,” says Cheryl. “I had a preliminary conversation with the presenter about what curriculum could be helpful for our staff.”

Fast forward to 2021: Over the course of six months, the Full Frame Initiative delivered a customized training to Way Finders’ managers, directors, and program specialists—who are sharing what they learned with their teams. 

Founded in 2007, the Full Frame Initiative is a social change organization growing an unlikely alliance of groundbreaking government, community, and nonprofit changemakers. Together, they are challenging the assumptions and changing the structures and systems that are currently harming people so that everyone has a fair shot at wellbeing. They are advancing the Wellbeing Blueprint—a roadmap to help system and community leaders build a nation where everyone has a fair shot at wellbeing—and have articulated five interconnected assets as universal must-haves for health, hope, and the ability to weather challenges:

•    Social connectedness to people and communities
•    Stability and predictability in daily life 
•    Safety in navigating everyday life without risk of physical or emotional harm 
•    Feeling of mastery, or having the ability to influence and control one’s future
•    Access to relevant resources to meet basic needs (food, shelter, school, health care, etc.)

Services meant to help people facing barriers often focus on just one domain (stability via housing, employment), without broader consideration of how the help may force people to give up something of value in another domain (social ties, access to childcare). This is what the Full Frame Initiative coins “tradeoffs.” When tradeoffs are too costly and don’t feel worth it? The changes won’t stick. To better interrupt cycles of harm, providers need to help people process and minimize tradeoffs; such work calls for a deep look at the whole landscape of someone’s life.

“The idea of tradeoffs is highly relevant to the work that we do with families in shelter,” says Cheryl. “For example, a family may be offered an affordable housing opportunity, it’s exactly what they need. But it’s in Boston and their whole family’s out in North Adams. How can we support families in making decisions that call for big tradeoffs? How can we provide support in the other areas of wellbeing?”

“Talking about what people give up in order to get something else was an aha moment for a lot of staff. Survivors of domestic violence trade off a lot. We may wonder, ‘Why are they doing this?’ And it’s because they’re keeping themselves safe,” says Director of Supportive Services Sarah Cloutier. “We always talk about being trauma informed. This is another lens. It makes you take a step back and think about all of the things that clients may have gone through as you help them move forward.”
“The training has helped program specialists have a new framework, a new tool, to help them reset their thoughts and understand things from the client’s perspective,” says Alicia Walker, manager of training and development with Housing Support Services. “We’ve been doing tradeoffs this entire time, trying to help clients see their options, and pros and cons, but we never labeled them as tradeoffs.”

“Our staff know the systemic barriers our families face, they understand the challenges,” says Cheryl. “But to have the actual language and context for how these barriers affect people, it gives staff a deeper understanding. So when a client’s having a hard time, what do you need to listen for? What domain of wellbeing is triggering them? Can we provide more options, less impactful tradeoffs?”

“We’re energized by this partnership!” says Madge Haynes, senior manager of engagement and partnerships at the Full Frame Initiative. “Way Finders’ commitment to building a culture that centers wellbeing means a shift in thinking—understanding what matters to people and how they weigh tradeoffs. It also requires removing structural barriers and changing conditions already built into our systems that prevent access to wellbeing. This work is essential in facilitating sustainable change and moving toward equity—for participants, staff, and the community.” 

The aspect of wellbeing that too often gets lost in the shuffle and overlooked—per Cheryl, Sarah, and Alicia—is social connectedness. Such as to a trusted neighbor or nearby relative, who can help with babysitting. Or to a therapist, who can share constructive feedback and coping skills. 

“As we’re struggling to get people’s economic resources and housing stability and health in check, the social connectedness piece is often the tradeoff,” says Cheryl. “For long term stability, you need that.”

Especially now, Sarah notes, when Covid-19 has changed so much about daily life. “We don’t have as many social connections right now, even within our shelters, we’re not seeing our clients face to face as much as we used to.”

Alicia and Sarah are working to build out an onboarding process that integrates key messages from the training. “We want this thinking to be in the forefront for folks who are coming into the organization, to know that this is the lens that we’re really pushing and working with,” says Alicia. 

Cheryl sees further opportunities to integrate the Five Domains of Wellbeing into daily work, such as during development meetings between HHS managers and staff, which include a self-care conversation (“If our staff have their own needs met, it’s much easier to meet the needs of their clients”). 

She’s also thinking bigger picture: “My hope is for the whole organization to have a common language around wellbeing,” says Cheryl. “This framework gives teams a context to start from. When a tenant starts making late payments, there’s probably a backstory. How can we support them in a different way to have a successful tenancy? We don’t want to see a tenant who’s already housed come into shelter. That’s the loop we’re interrupting.”