Learning professionals are facing a crisis that is not being addressed sufficiently. Workplaces are all too frequently toxic, and as a result, the learner is not prepared to learn much of anything. No matter how fancy the delivery, how interesting the material, or how essential the new skills are, you can’t learn if you are not engaged. And engagement at work is only 13 percent worldwide. That is, more than eight out of 10 people are not involved, enthusiastic, or committed to their work or workplace. In this context, how can you learn? How can the brain hold onto anything?

In order to learn, we have to fix the engagement problem. And it is going to take more than entertaining tricks to do this. At the core, the workforce is facing immense challenges: stress, burnout, and depression are rife. This puts the brain in “low-engagement mode.” Unless we step out of our denial and do something about these variables first, learning will go nowhere, fast.

  1. Learning needs to be a dedicated function

The chief learning officer should work closely with the CEO to align the learning and business goals. Too often, learning is sheltered under some irrelevant umbrella as an “expense” item. It is ignored. But when you ignore mental stimulation, you’re not doing much for engagement or productivity.

If you are in charge of learning in your organization, approach the CEO with this suggestion. Ask how learning can become part of your engagement strategy. Explain that the brain that executes best on strategy, is one that is engaged by new learning.

  1. Understand burnout

Rather than denying burnout by talking about resilience to disengaged employees, try to understand if burnout is affecting your organization. Nobody likes to admit to being burned out, and it can impact the morale of the organization. However, since engagement is tied to burnout, it is likely impacting the company’s productivity and learning. A burned-out brain is one that has metaphorically blown its learning fuses. That’s why you need to attend to this.

Use a tool to measure burnout and implement interventions continuously. Maslach and Leiter have a burnout inventory, and there are various companies that offer burnout tools. When you have a sense of what is causing your burnout, you can target this with specific interventions.

  1. Address depression

Depression is a largely unaddressed problem within organizations but is one of the top three workplace problems and impact learning. When people are depressed, their brains are impacted so that they can’t sleep or concentrate, and they have no energy. Learning will flail in this context.

Offer mental health screening and support, and have a de-stigmatization program through your employee assistance program. Form a partnership with a local hospital for telephone support if necessary. Providing support will enhance employee commitment and engagement and through that route, also impact learning.  

  1. Target learning

Learning should be targeted according to a learner’s needs where possible. To be motivated to learn, learners must find the learning material to be relevant and congruent with who they are. Learning management systems should strive to make this a dynamic part of the learning effort.

Work with program designers to elicit who might want to learn about a topic, as well as why they should learn about this. By using technology that ties workplace engagement with learning, learners can also feel like their learning needs are being met.

New tools and approaches will fail if we do not prepare learners’ brains to absorb and remember information. In lieu of the current crisis in workplace engagement, learning professionals should not deliver learning in a vacuum. It matters where your learning lands. Caring about that, will ensure that investments in learning are more worthwhile.