The Government is pushing hard to deliver lifetime skills for people looking to gain employability and upskill. Adults seeking this type of training are likely to come from a range of backgrounds: some will have been unemployed for a while, some will be switching careers, some could be recently redundant from a job they may have had for many years, or some may be re-entering education for the first time since leaving school.
On top of this, between 30 per cent and 40 per cent of the population is thought to be neurodiverse, meaning a significant number of employees in workplaces across the UK are likely to have hidden learning needs – needs that have never been fully supported and may have prevented them from gaining qualifications earlier in life.
Employers should be encouraging these individuals to take opportunities to further their skills and education and be ready to support them throughout their journey.
The benefits to employees can be significant: research commissioned by the Higher Education Careers Services Unit and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found 69 per cent of people said their studying improved both their confidence at work and their job performance. 81 per cent reported improvements to their personal development, and 70 per cent said their self-confidence had increased.
When taking on additional study outside of work, a lack of flexibility from employers can make it particularly difficult to balance work, study, and personal lives. Giving employees who are studying the ability to manage their own time can be an incredibly helpful form of support.
This can involve enabling them to work four-day weeks with longer hours, enabling employees to dedicate a day to their studies. Alternatively, it may help them to begin work earlier in the day and therefore leave earlier. Flexibility is key for all employees, but particularly when responsibilities outside work are greater.
For individuals whose cognitive needs prevented them from fully capitalising on education opportunities previously, particular support will be needed and employers should create an environment of openness and encouragement from the start.
People often worry about hidden biases and about being ‘judged’ on the perception that they are less able with regards to certain activities if they have learning needs that would benefit from support.
They may think they will be seen differently once this becomes common knowledge. However, creating a more open culture can start by having conversations upfront about how best to work with others who think and learn differently.
It can be helpful for teams to have honest conversations about their various needs in the workplace, in order to normalise the concept that everybody thinks and learns differently. One member of the team might discuss their issues with verbal memory, for example.
This could involve asking them to always follow up with actions after a meeting because they might easily forget and not process actions as effectively from verbal instructions alone.
Another team member may need time to write notes when listening to a brief. Having these conversations upfront can create a more open culture; with everybody aware of the vast range of people’s cognitive needs, it is no longer likely to be an issue to be avoided or shied away from.
Technology can also be a way forward in terms of including and supporting those within the workplace that have additional learning needs. There exists the capability and tools for mapping cognitive profiles and understanding areas of both strength and weakness.
If employees take a cognitive assessment as part of the onboarding process, it becomes easier to see cognitive differences and apply those diversities to roles and teams, regardless of whether they are adult learners or not. This leads to a more open and inclusive workplace culture overall, but also ensures employers and employees are better armed with the tools they need to work effectively, improve support structures and reach their full potential together.
Furthermore, supporting employees to undertake further education outside work can have advantages for the organisation too. Motivated staff are more productive and more likely to remain with their employer, minimising the loss of organisational knowledge and experience.
Research by P&MM found that employers can expect to gain nearly four years of service when good work undertaken by an employee has been recognised by their manager or a colleague – so it pays to be supportive.
Our national recovery depends on supporting more adults to succeed, offering real employment opportunities and breaking down barriers in all levels of education. Employers are continuing to rise to the challenges of recent times, finding innovative and creative ways to engage and support those who are learning alongside work.
However, there is much more that can be done. HR professionals, in particular, must ensure those who are undertaking additional education outside of work feel supported by their employers. After all, it is in the interest of these employers for the workforce to upskill wherever possible, to improve productivity and bring new capabilities to the workplace.