Quality of life

About the “What researchers mean by...” series

This research term explanation first appeared in a regular column called “What researchers mean by…” that ran in the Institute for Work & Health’s newsletter At Work for over 10 years (2005-2017). The column covered over 35 common research terms used in the health and social sciences. The complete collection of defined terms is available online or in a guide that can be downloaded from the website.

Published: April 2012

Let’s say you’re a budding health researcher. Even before you set foot in the classroom or laboratory, you know that the quality of a person’s life is really important. This may be the reason why you got into health research: to improve the quality of life for people in your family, city or region.

But at the start of your studies, you notice that health research often measures the effectiveness of an intervention or program by life expectancy—literally, the impact of the intervention on the number of years that a person lives. You know that doesn’t tell the whole story. You don’t want to know only how long a person lives, but also how well he or she lives. You want to also measure quality of life (QoL).

The World Health Organization defines QoL as “individuals’ perceptions of their position in life in the context of the culture and value system in which they live, and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns.”

QoL embodies overall well-being and happiness, including access to school, work opportunities, absence of military conflict or threats, as well as good physical and emotional health. It’s relative, subjective and has intangible components, such as spiritual beliefs and a sense of belonging.

QoL builds path to better programs

A fair number of questionnaires have been developed to measure QoL as an outcome measure.

QoL measures can be used to determine the effectiveness of many different types of public health, medical and workplace interventions or programs. For instance, researchers at Sweden’s University of Lund studied a group of people returning to work after having had a stroke. They studied 120 patients using two self-administered QoL instruments: (1) part of the Göteborg quality of life instrument, a subjective well-being scale with 18 items, covering things like memory and mood, where each item was scored from ‘1’ (very bad) to ‘7’ (very good); and (2) the assessment of life satisfaction instrument, which includes nine domains of life-related items, such as self care and family life, where each item was scored from ‘1’ (very dissatisfying) to ‘6’ (very satisfying).

What findings emerged from this research? Although only 41 per cent of the patients had returned to work, all of those who had returned reported a significantly higher level of well-being and life satisfaction. This indicated to the researchers the importance of return to work (RTW) to quality of life.

Source: At Work, Issue 68, Spring 2012: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto