Wellbeing training at work and wellbeing: what works?

Olga_TregaskisFollowing the publication of our recent briefing on what makes a learning at work and wellbeing , we hear about the systematic review of the evidence from Professor Olga Tregaskis, part of our Work and Learning research team at Norwich Business School, University of East Anglia.

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.

As part of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, we carried out a systematic review of all the available evidence on learning at work. It looked at all countries comparable with the UK, and started with an initial pool of over 4,000 studies, which we whittled down to the most relevant and methodologically robust.

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 route causes of these demands stemming from poor job quality, are not addressed then 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’s lacking is spillover into enhanced worker satisfaction or reduced anxiety in work.

In the research, we looked at interventions that focussed on developing work competencies, alongside wellbeing, through improving work skills on conflict management training, psychosocial intervention training and workforce development to equip staff to deal with stress.

One of the success stories in this area studied by Leon-Perez, Notelaers, and Leon-Rubio (2016) was an example of a training program on conflict management for 258 health care workers. Staff were voluntarily enrolled in the training program which was delivered in eight three-hour group training sessions over the course of four months and a further three-hour follow up session two months later.

Participants were trained to deal with conflict at work with colleagues and patients and their families, the course involved:

  1. emotion management
  2. interpersonal communication and assertiveness skills
  3. problem solving skills.

In comparison to a control group of 243 health care employees in similar roles, the group that had received training reported less conflict with staff, patients and relatives. This was further supported by fewer recorded absences from work and fewer requests for third party mediation in conflicts at work. The training programme was also effective in reducing complaints from patients. This underlines the potential of learning interventions where professional competencies overlap significantly with wellbeing outcomes.

Perhaps the most surprising finding in our review is the unclear evidence of the impact of leadership training, or training that’s part of wider organisational change programmes. Given the strategic significance of leadership training and change programmes to organisational performance, the omission of evidence on their impact on employee wellbeing is considerable.

Two key explanations for the conflicting results with leadership training seem to lie in design and the wider context.

Firstly, the design of the programme: those  that showed an impact on wellbeing used more extensive adult learning principles. These included group-based peer to peer learning alongside self-directed learning.

Secondly, many of the leadership programmes took place in a wider context of change, where a climate of major organisational change, job insecurity and high stress/demands are cited as potential reasons why the learning intervention was not successfully implemented.

Even where the evidence showed unequivocally positive impact – i.e. developing employees’ personal resources – there are lessons to be learned on improving how training is carried out and supported.  Of the four studies that showed no effect, three of these studies used online, computer-based methods that involved self-directed learning, one of them also included some offline support but this was not really used. Poor engagement with the learning process due to a combination of the self-directed nature of the environment and competing work demands were likely to be key factors explaining the lack of impact.

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, whilst increase our works skills or our personal resources in the short term, are not necessarily making us happier. Can we design for wellbeing as well as learning, which could deliver sustainable workforce capability for the future.

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