Ethical issues

Evidence suggests that measures of subjective well-being are relatively non-problematic for respondents to answer. Rates of refusal to respond are low, both for life evaluations and for measures of affect (Smith, 2013). In general, item-specific non-response rates for subjective well-being measures are similar to those for marital status, education and labour market status, and much lower than for measures of income (Smith, 2013). This suggests that, in general, such questions are not perceived as problematic by respondents.

Cognitive testing of measures of subjective well-being supports the conclusions reached from an examination of item-specific non-response rates (ONS, 2012), with some notable exceptions. In particular, the ONS found that eudaimonic questions relating to whether respondents felt that what they did in life were worthwhile and the experience of loneliness caused visible distress in some respondents, particularly among disabled and unemployed respondents.

Best practice suggests that statistical providers should consider how to manage the risks associated with questions that are distressing to respondents. Although it is important not to overstate the risks - they apply mainly to eudaimonic questions, and to a small proportion of respondents - such issues should be dealt with effectively. A complicating factor is that it might not be evident at the time of the interview whether a respondent has been affected by the questioning. One approach to managing this proposed by the ONS (2012) is to distribute a leaflet at the time of the interview giving respondents information on the purpose of the survey and reiterating the confidentiality of the data collected. The leaflet would also contain information for distressed respondents about where to seek help.

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