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Stella Collins

Stellar Labs

Chief Learning Officer

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How will anxiety about the return to work impact learning and development?

Many employees are feeling anxious about returning to the physical workplace. How will this impact L&D?

Nobody has been immune from the effects of Covid-19. The anxiety we felt about being on furlough, losing jobs, working under corona restrictions or learning to work from home is now being replicated as people negotiate the transition back into the ‘new normal’ workplace. 

A CIPD poll suggests at least 2 in 5 of us are anxious about returning to the physical workplace. Forbes points out questions about transport, flexibility, responsibility and what the workplace will be like are causing many people to feel uncomfortable all over again. Even people who’ve remained in the workplace will be anxious watching colleagues and customers return to what has become ‘their space’.

Learning and anxiety aren’t great bedfellows. Anxiety and stress reduce our ability to concentrate, pay attention, persist, think broadly and creatively, and to sleep – all of which are necessary elements for effective learning.

The need for resilient learning cultures

Learning is at the forefront of organisational needs because post-pandemic we all have to learn new ways of working, deal with the digital revolution and remain resilient.  But what are the challenges to developing employees through such a transition, and how can psychological and neuroscientific insights help with this challenge?

How can organisations create resilient learning cultures where people feel fully capable and motivated to learn again? How can we help people find relevant opportunities to learn and build psychologically, physically and digitally safe environments to support learning and performance?  

What we must remember is people have been learning fast and hard during this crisis – both formally and informally.  A KPMG study showed learning hours had increased by 10 times in some organisations. Massive change forces us to learn and now is the time to recognise and build on that.

Unfortunately, learning and anxiety aren’t great bedfellows. Anxiety and stress reduce our ability to concentrate, pay attention, persist, think broadly and creatively, and to sleep – all of which are necessary elements for effective learning. So, what can we do to support an effective learning culture during this adjustment period?

1. Communicate

When we’re uncertain we look to trusted sources for guidance so encourage your senior team to be on board with all interventions. They need to communicate key messages more regularly, clearly and with confidence.

Reduce uncertainty. Fear of the unknown increases anxiety so create certainty where you can. For example, some people are keen to return to face-to-face learning but it’s still uncertain when and how it will happen.  Instead, confirm that we’ll still learn digitally for the foreseeable future – put a date on it well into the future. That’s one less thing for you and them to worry about.

Share the bigger picture. When we’re anxious we focus on the unknown and magnify it. Our focus becomes narrow rather than broad so people can’t see the bigger picture. Make people aware of what remains the same, and some positive elements about the changing situation. Don’t dismiss concerns as irrelevant but illuminate other parts of the picture to broaden the perspective.  

2. It’s not just your brain that learns

Structured meditation, mindfulness and simple breathing exercises have all been shown to reduce anxiety and build resilience. Encourage people to use technology, wearable devices and digital platforms to provide feedback to build resilience. Offer resilience training to everyone, including the senior team, who must set the tone and communicate that they aren’t immune and share the steps they are taking too.

Physical activity promotes neural connectivity and growth and therefore learning. It also reduces stress because we use up those stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Promote exercise classes, maybe pay for gym membership, encourage people to take the stairs, bike or walk to work, provide standing desks, introduce standing meetings and coaching whilst walking.

Sleep is vital for long-term memory so sleep deprivation reduces our ability to learn. Make sleep a priority in your business: provide information about why and how to improve sleep patterns. There are many sleep apps to monitor your sleeping patterns and give you advice. Where there’s room you can even create ‘nap spaces’. 

Your gut has huge numbers of neurons and healthy guts lead to healthy brains. Many of us have been comfort eating during corona and need to get back to healthier habits. Instead of snack machines or office restaurants full of fizzy drinks, crisps and chocolate fill them with fruit, veg and healthy snacks to promote gut health and reduce anxiety. 

3. Everyone contributes

Learning is an innate skill but that doesn’t mean we are all experts. Many people have never been shown how to learn effectively and have picked up habits and techniques that often don’t work or they labour under myths that don’t serve them well.

The skill of learning underpins all other skills so give people the one skill that will last for life and drive performance across your organisation. Introduce ‘Learn to Learn’ as the foundation of your learning culture.

Everyone contributes to a healthy learning culture especially when they know how learning really works. Promote evidence-based, learne- led, user-generated content.  But remember, content isn’t enough for learning. Support practice, feedforward, reflection, sharing and learning from peers and colleagues.   

Contextual learning is vital for memory so embrace technology to promote learning in context, in the flow of work, rather than it being distanced and separate.  

4. Give time to learn

Effective learning leads to improved performance but it’s not a magic wand and can’t be accomplished overnight. Measure and evaluate learning and performance over months rather than days or weeks.  

Rebuilding new learning cultures that work in the ‘new normal’ won’t be easy either so don’t neglect your own learning. Collaborate, find out what other organisations are doing, check out the research into evidence based learning, experiment and share what you do.

Interested in discovering more?

Stella Collins is offering a crash course on transforming your learning culture. Learn the tools, techniques and strategies you need to manage the process to build an effective learning culture in your business. Learn from successful organisations, industry experts and peers who are travelling the same journey.

Author Profile Picture
Stella Collins

Chief Learning Officer

Read more from Stella Collins

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