When I graduated in 2002, I thought I was done with learning. No more exams, no more textbooks, no more homework. For a while that was true, until I began to think there was something missing in my life; learning.
Back in 2003 my employer was a keen advocate of learning and development (L&D) and would pay for employees to obtain Chartered Insurance Institute qualifications.
It was sitting these qualifications that gave me back a sense of purpose and achievement I had been missing.
It was also the catalyst for a series of university night classes and a commitment to lifelong learning. What I didn’t understand at the time was how beneficial that practice would be to my wellbeing.
For decades, researchers have examined the impact adult learning and formal education has on health and wellbeing.
While education and learning are among the clearest indicators of life outcomes such as employment and income, they are also strong predictors of wellbeing regardless of where in the world you live and work according to the OECD and the World Bank.
There is a very definite, multi-layered impact that learning has on employee wellbeing.
But it has only been in the last few years that the evaluation of the effectiveness of learning interventions have on people’s wellbeing has been looked at closely in the workplace.
In a few systematic reviews of the evidence, no studies at all have found a negative wellbeing impact of learning.
Controlling for demographic, educational, and other background factors, there is a substantive effect of learning on people’s wellbeing.
But as well as improving the ability to handle stress, improve physical wellbeing and reduce fatigue, there is evidence that adult learning impacts self-confidence and relationships with other people.
Coming out of the global pandemic these two benefits, in particular, I think, are useful for employers to take note of.
Sense of self
Knowing yourself and becoming confident in who you are is a growing challenge for employees.
As much as 50% of our feelings of self are impacted by environmental factors. While they can’t stop the pandemic or even the expected long-lasting impact of it, employers can find ways to positively improve the wellbeing of their staff by helping them reinvigorate their sense of self.
Our ability to shape our own lives, develop our sense of self-worth and confidence are important factors in our levels of self-esteem and general happiness in life. But low self-esteem is a diagnostic criterion for quite a few mental health problems.
In research conducted for The Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning, 10,000 tutors were asked about their views on the impact learning has on people. Of the responses, 92% strongly agreed that through learning, people experienced improved self-esteem. Focusing on self-esteem is widely considered to be a core element of mental health promotion.
Our drive for self-esteem might come from our human need to form alliances and to be part of a group. While our evolution likely saw being part of a group as a survival mechanism, the Sociometer theory suggests that self-esteem is an important indicator of social acceptance.
The networks in which employees operate (inside and outside of work) have a profound and long-lasting impact on employee wellbeing.
The more employees build the ability to shape their own lives and views, the lower their risk of social exclusion.
By using learning to develop their feelings of self-worth and improved self-esteem, employees are increasing their likelihood of building social capital – one of the strongest ways to build resilience against common stressors, avoid burnout and deal with poor mental health.
Improvements in mental health
But as well as learning to support good wellbeing, recent research into the impact learning has on adults who already have mental health problems, has revealed some surprising results.
As well as some of the expected benefits like improving confidence, social participation, and sense of achievement, adult learning among those with mental health problems also showed learning as a helpful distraction.
By participating in learning, those involved in one study spoke of how the sense of absorption they experienced while learning helped their mental health to improve.
Learning tech’s role in the future of wellbeing
Popular language learning app Duolingo reported a 300% increase in new users shortly after the first lockdowns came into force.
Across the world, online searches for terms like ‘online learning’ and ‘elearning’ increased up to fourfold in 2020. The Open University are experiencing a surge in interest of its courses and qualifications because of the pandemic.
Learning content became far more accessible because of the pandemic and tech became a great enabler of this. It bridged the physical distances with employees and enabled them to make commitments to learning they hadn’t previously been able to.
The crisis became a powerful test of the potential for online learning and the tech used to facilitate it.
The pandemic gave us an opportunity to rethink how digital technology can be used to facilitate adult learning.
The decade’s worth of acceleration we’ve seen over the past two years in the wellbeing and learning spaces have shown us just how impactful tech can be.
As many employers have now adopted online learning and admitted their growing need to better support the mental health of their people, there is an interesting new place for learning technologies in the future of employee wellbeing.
Director of Employee Wellbeing
Gethin is an award-winning psychologist who has been helping some of the world’s largest organisations to improve their employee experience for 20 years.