The joy we feel when we master a new skill, the sense of accomplishment we get from a job well done, the buzz we get from helping others or the fading of our anxieties as we see solutions yield results. This is wellbeing.
We might reasonably expect, then, that training that provides a route for employees and leaders to master their skills and knowledge base would yield dividends for wellbeing. However, in reality the evidence is conflicting.
Our systematic review of all the available evidence on learning at work looked at all countries comparable with the UK. The evidence tells us that what is effective is wellbeing training focusing on developing an employee’s personal resources to cope with high demands. The evidence base is robust and we know that it works across a range of industry contexts, at least in the short term. However, we also know that when the root causes of these demands stemming from poor job quality are not addressed, wellbeing diminishes. This makes it clear that personal resources training is not enough on its own.
The specific focus of effective studies was diverse: problem solving, psychological flexibility, sleep training, happiness training, mindfulness approaches, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), stress management, resilience training, meditation awareness training (MAT), relaxation training, psychosocial skills training, empowerment and life skills. Since all of these reported positive effects, this would suggest that the particular focus of this kind of training is not important.
When it comes to professional training, the evidence is weaker. Much of this type of training enhances learning of specific work and professional skills; what is lacking is spillover into enhanced employee satisfaction or reduced anxiety in work.
Given that most of the new learning we do as adults, beyond school, takes place in the context of work, the potential for training and development to contribute to our wellbeing is a real opportunity. Yet the evidence suggests our learning programmes, while increasing our work skills or our personal resources in the short term, are not necessarily making us happier. If we can we design for wellbeing as well as learning, it could deliver sustainable workforce capability for the future.
Professor Olga Tregaskis is a researcher in the work and learning research team at the What Works Centre for Wellbeing and the Norwich Business School, University of East Anglia