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Jan 27, 2017 | by Centre

Lifelong learning: what are the wellbeing co-benefits?

The Government’s recently published Industrial Strategy, now out to consultation, indicated a shift towards embedding lifelong learning to help people retrain in new skills and adapt to rapid changes in technology.  What the strategy misses is how learning directly, and indirectly, affects our wellbeing.

There are 1.9 million adults enrolled in further education colleges, according to the Association of Colleges. And thousands of employees in the UK participate in work-based training and development courses each year.

When we spoke with the people around the UK about wellbeing, the most commonly used word was ‘opportunity’.  What you told us about learning, work and wellbeing was that:

  • work and learning offers achievement, satisfaction, appreciation, pride
  • work and learning can bring a sense of fulfillment, belonging, shared interest and experience
  • transition points (such as going into and out of retirement) need support.

What’s more, learning is also one of the evidence-based Five Ways to Wellbeing along with give, connect, take notice and be active.

And the obvious goal of the countless courses and training on offer appear to be improving they way we work, or changing our work completely.

But the evidence reveals that learning has an interesting and complex relationship with wellbeing. In the short term, the impact on wellbeing can be negative. Meeting essay deadlines or taking exams, for example, can increase stress or reduce social interactions with friends, which are factors that contribute to our subjective wellbeing.

When you take a longer view, however, additional formal qualifications or education shows a slightly positive impact on a person’s wellbeing. Again, this seems to correlate to what we might expect. For instance, we know there is a strong link between employment, especially high-quality jobs, and wellbeing. So where qualifications can lead to employment and higher quality jobs, it appears to be a good thing.

It also makes sense that where the process itself of formal and informal learning reduces isolation, there are benefits to participants’ wellbeing.  

But what, if any, are the benefits of lifelong learning to us as individuals, beyond its impact on employment progression? Does it matter what we learn about, or if we learn in-person or online? What are the criteria that make learning meaningful? And how does learning change over time? One striking finding about learning in the UK, for example, is that it is the one of the five ways to wellbeing that drops off most dramatically with age.

Evidence from observational studies (non-intervention studies that assess naturally occurring levels of learning, such as qualification or accreditation gained, or job status) supports a relationship between wellbeing and learning. Although identifying the causal mechanism has been more difficult: do happier people engage in more learning opportunities, or do learning opportunities make people happier?

In February, the Centre will publish our findings from a systematic review carried out with our team in the University of East Anglia on the wellbeing impacts of learning at work. Later in the year, we will publish the results of a systematic review of adult learning and wellbeing. This explores the processes through which this positive wellbeing occurs. 

Understanding the potential health benefits of different types of learning obviously has implications for service delivery, funding and policy making in further education and workplace learning.

The findings will address the question about the benefits of lifelong learning beyond employment-related benefits. It’s an important one. Especially if we are to evolve our perception of work-based and community learning from being focused mainly on what it does for our employment prospects, to how it contributes to our personal and community wellbeing. 

To get an alert when the work and learning findings become available, please email us at info@whatworkswellbeing.org.


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