Overcoming barriers to learning in the workplace

Whether you’re an employer or an employee, overcoming barriers to learning in the workplace is important – it’s the key to personal development, safety, business growth, increased revenues, promotions, salary increases and much more. For some companies there’s a belief that workplace training is a necessary evil – an attitude that’s often grown from resistance to training and change.

If you can understand what contributes to these barriers you can unlock huge potential in your company and your people – you’ve just got to know what to be on the lookout for…

Invisible difficulties and disabilities

Most people have heard of conditions like autism, ADHD and dyslexia – they’re occasionally in the media and sometimes appear in professional publications, but painfully, even people who endure these conditions often don’t know about the impact they can have on learning in the workplace.

Conditions like these are referred to as ‘invisible’ simply because they rarely show any physical symptoms – which can often lead to the misunderstanding that the person experiences life in the same way as someone who’s got more typical brain function. They can become doubly invisible in the workplace since people often feel the need to hide whatever awareness of their condition they have – often thinking that being forthright would lead to discrimination or embarrassment.

What do they look like?

As previously noted, there are little or no physical symptoms that go along with these conditions – and frankly, there are a lot of misconceptions about the behaviour that they inspire. Where you might be aware that people with autism can struggle with social communication or people with dyslexia can have problems with reading and writing you might not realise the following:

  • People with ADHD can be susceptible to intense headaches, restlessness and distraction as a result of not being able to ‘filter’ common background noises. Imagine how the sound of breaking glass catches your attention more than that of a passing car – for some people with ADHD every noise can catch their attention like that breaking glass. 
  • Autism can often result in a lack of ‘flexibility of thought’ – meaning anticipating new scenarios, settings and people is extremely difficult – often resulting in anxiety, stress and physical illness.
  • People who otherwise manage the symptoms of dyslexia can have huge problems with their working memory – because of the sheer effort their brain puts toward understanding the written elements of a role.

So, even if someone manages their role on a day to day basis – it’s obvious how tricky training can become when you’re working with a brain that doesn’t function in quite the same way as the rest of your colleagues. Next time you think someone’s hesitant or not paying attention to training, try to explore the issues a little before getting irritated, there could be a struggle going on you just can’t see.

Mental health and well-being

In a similar way to the ‘invisible’ conditions we’ve mentioned it’s highly likely that some of your team experience the non-physical symptoms of mental health conditions – such as stress, depression, anxiety or a whole host of others.

For some people breaking from the ‘norm’ of a role can inspire uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and even manifest as physical symptoms. Despite a multitude of campaigns to inspire the opposite – mental health conditions can still carry some feelings of being ‘taboo’ – so while someone might be struggling with how they feel – they may try to pass it off as nothing, leading to confusion when training isn’t absorbed or engaged with. 

Preoccupations and distractions

How often have you seen people seemingly in a ‘world of their own’ when they should be taking in a training session? It could be that the post-lunch lull has set it – then again, it could be that their brain is preoccupied with something life-changing that you just don’t know about.

As an example – around 1 in 6 adults in the UK is facing ‘problem debt’ – meaning they’re in a cycle of borrowing they’re unable to break free from. This can mean handling collection agencies, repayments, other jobs – even bailiffs and court appearances. If you think you’re going to get the best from someone while they’re missing calls and knocks at the door relating to finances you’re likely to be mistaken.

It’s impossible to keep track of people’s lives – but cutting them some slack to deal with what’s going on outside of the office can really help people focus on the task at hand.

Learning styles

There’s a host of different ways to measure or gauge your preferred learning style – generally speaking you’ll find you learn better either by listening, doing, watching or writing about any given subject. So, guess what happens when a room full of ‘doers’ are confronted with 95 Powerpoint slides?! That’s right – you’ve lost the room before slide 3.

Now, you’re very unlikely to have a full team of people whose learning style is going to be exactly the same – so the key is to mix the workplace learning up a little. When everyone’s engaged in a manner they prefer, they’ll reflect on training as a more positive experience, they’ll retain more information and they’re far more likely to engage positively again in the future…

Why are we here?!

Have you ever found yourself plodding through a training course with no real knowledge of what you’re hoping to achieve or whether the end is in sight? Preparing for training should always come with a bigger picture reason as to why people are going to be in the room, what the agenda is going to be and the benefit for all involved.

No one trains for the sake of training; perhaps you’re there to keep up with industry standards meaning you can continue to trade – perhaps you’re there because you have new machinery that would be dangerous if mishandled – or maybe you’re introducing a new way of working. Whatever the reason, imagine your team are constantly asking “what’s in it for me?” – answer the question before it’s actually asked and people will buy in to the course on a far deeper level.

What’s the answer?

If you got here thinking that we’d be able to give you a one-size-fits-all answer to all the issues above that you can implement for your training course next week – I’m sorry to say that you’re going to be disappointed! However, we can come close – if you’ve got the time.

If you can encourage open and honest discussion with a team member then you’ll begin to get a picture of what work (and maybe even wider life) looks like for them. Employees are under no legal obligation to disclose most health or life issues to you – and as such you’re under no obligation to account for issues you know nothing about. It’s only by talking – and on your behalf, communicating a genuine interest and care for the well-being of your team that you’ll begin to learn about what makes each person tick and whether or not your organisation can support.

Make time to talk

Could you implement a fairly informal discussion about a person’s role, how they’re coping and how it’s fitting in to life in general? If you can, you might be able to start building a trusting relationship and inspire the confidence in your team to confide in you about their role – especially if they see that you’re willing to make changes that will make work a more positive and reward place for them.

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