March 2, 2023

Beyond learning: building an L&D alliance for mental health

Mental health has never been on the list of priorities for L&D leaders, but this is about to change

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One of the pressure points we have not anticipated in researching for the 2023 L&D in tech report was mental health, as traditionally, the Learning and Development function was rarely charged with helping employees cope with the stressors in their lives.

But with tech workers being particularly prone to isolation due to remote work, the staggering number of people reporting anxiety and depression has increased in recent years (51% by some accounts, more by others).

Mental health issues seriously impact people’s ability to focus and learn, and the L&D team’s efforts can be rendered useless because of this.

It’s no wonder that for 2023, the strategic development of the workforce needs to mitigate this type of risk, and the leadership team in charge of the learning function is struggling to find solutions that help employees focus on learning.

The most common approaches we’ve seen are more bells and whistles than a substantial learning process or strategy change.

From the gamification of learning to mental health webinars, it seems learning professionals are searching for quick fixes to the thorny issue at hand.

However, both gamification and two-hour webinars mostly fail in their task.

The typical tech employee is neither inclined nor happy to take part in poorly designed games (as all gamification efforts are when compared to actual games) and theoretical content.

The long-term and more impactful solutions come from understanding what helps mitigate the impact of the negative news cycle, isolation, and burnout.

And the answers to this question come from dozens of years of research into the science of mental health.

We have identified four areas where the learning and development function can act to help employees.

Small learning communities


Data from dozens of psychological studies and interventions across all cultures show that social connectedness is inversely correlated with mental health problems and is directly associated with well-being.

The L&D intervention:

Some companies we’ve talked to use problem boards on their intranet, essentially a page where they publish interesting challenges and invite employees to join small groups and try to solve them.

Why it works:

Regular meetings with people with the same goal, in particular, to solve a challenge or a problem, have increased camaraderie and social support.

This was mainly researched in the tech sector, with numerous studies showing that initiatives like peer programming are very effective in increasing enjoyment, confidence, and the feeling of camaraderie.



When people lack the feeling of making progress, achieving something meaningful, or being good at something, their mood drops, and they are in danger of developing depression and anxiety.

The L&D intervention:

Some learning tools that consider this allows the L&D function to set incremental goals for a learning process, depending on the skill level of their employee.

For example, in a leadership course deployed in the tech division of an automotive company, different target scores were set for other people, with more experienced managers having a higher target score than less experienced ones.

Why it works:

Having variable goals for people with different skills is a common practice in performance management. When adopting this practice in the learning process, people find it rewarding to take courses and feel good about themselves.

Most modern learning platforms allow for variable goals, and a new generation of AI tools makes implementing this relatively easy.



Sparking people’s interest motivates them to “click next” and brings enjoyment into the mix and an elevated sense of curiosity.

The L&D intervention:

While most L&D interventions we’ve seen were focused on gamification elements to spark interest, more thoughtful designs turn to learn content into journeys of discovery. For example, a case study created by one of the Big Four companies for their managers involved a step-by-step approach where people saw a story unfold based on their actions.

Why it works:

When people become curious about something and begin anticipating the following episodes, dopamine is released into the system and helps counter the effects of anxiety and depression.

Learning platforms that go beyond gamification and allow for rapid development of learning stories are few, but newer solutions have built-in algorithms that make the process easy and scalable.



Lack of meaning is associated with increased anxiety levels and a higher chance of burnout across multiple studies.

The L&D intervention:

One of the simplest and most impactful strategies we’ve seen is positioning the learning process so that people instantly understand what’s their tangible benefit of engaging in it. For example, in a negotiation course conducted through Zoom, the facilitator explained the benefits in simple terms, based on historical data: for the buyers, the benefit was cost reduction between 30 and 40%; for the sellers, an increase in profit margin between 15 and 35%.

This simple strategy got everyone on board right from the start.

Why it works:

Telling people what their particular benefit can be by engaging with the learning process creates meaning and positive anticipation. This makes people interested, excited, and anxious to start the course.Most learning platforms start the course with a “learning goal,” but the historical benefit of people taking the course seems to be needed before that.

This was beautifully (and amusingly) formulated at the beginning of a Time Management course in a Romanian company we’ve surveyed:

“People who have taken this course over the past six months have seen a 32,4% decrease in the number of hours spent dealing with other people’s problems. Can you do better?”

Getting employees ready for a complicated, ever-changing world while they battle with their own mental, social, and relationship problems is incredibly difficult.

The first step is to acknowledge that there is a problem.

The second step is redesigning the process to increase camaraderie and feelings of achievement, curiosity, and meaning.

Fortunately, there are already digital tools that allow for the process to be redesigned. However, what’s missing sometimes seems to be the willingness to change, as one of the people we’ve talked to said to us:

“The problem is not the legacy software. It's the legacy mindset. That's why online learning has such a low impact.

If you want to read more about the challenges faced by L&D leaders in tech companies, take a look at the 2023 L&D in tech report

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