Are attitudes towards maths holding your team back?


If the thought of having to do maths gives you a feeling of dread, you are not alone. For so many people bad school memories lead to chronic maths anxiety. Others think of trigonometry, algebra and calculus and dismiss it as irrelevant in life and at work.

In reality, wherever we work and whatever we do we all need the Essentials of Numeracy to tackle everyday problems. Whether it’s working out medication doses in a hospital, taking measurements on a building site or handling cash at a checkout there is no hiding from maths. 

But with the right mindset, anyone can do it! We’ve met many people who have said they hate maths or are not a maths person. But with support they proved themselves wrong.

Overcoming the fear

Take for example Ryan who is a healthcare assistant. He told us he was ‘shaking like a leaf’ when he first came to do our online assessment. But then he found that it wasn’t so scary, and gradually over 2 or 3 months he used online resources. To his surprise, he improved his score each time he assessed and now he is even confident enough to help others with their everyday maths.

It was a similar story for civil service manager Rachel. She regularly has to make complex decisions, put together budgets and interpret data. All tasks needing numeracy skills, but her maths “Achilles heel” was holding her back. After years of putting numbers to one side she changed her attitude and became highly motivated to learn. With this her maths skills flourished and she now feels much more confident. 

Karen is another example. She needed to pass a numeracy module to get her Care Certificate. The thought of sitting down for an hour and looking at maths problems terrified her. But with help she started to explore and understand the best way for her to learn. Once she got going she improved greatly over the next 2 months. Surprisingly, she wrote to us and said:

It has been quite nerve wracking but I actually enjoy it now and get into it, dare I say I look forward to it."

There are countless other stories – including those shown in this short clip. What they show us is that a simple shift in mindset can make a huge difference to a person’s chances of learning to be confident with numbers. 

Nearly half the working age population have numeracy skills at or below what’s expected of an-eleven-year old. Given the scale of the problem, it is extremely likely that lots of people in your workplace are held back by poor numeracy. Union learning reps have a fantastic opportunity to help them.

How you can help

So how can you support people at work? Speaking positively about maths is an important starting point. Encourage staff to see that there is value to improving their skills, whether it be for their own career progression, to improve their performance at work or minimise day to day stress. It’s also important that they are inspired to believe that anyone (including themselves) can improve if they are willing to put in the effort.

National Numeracy are working with UNISON at Blackpool Teaching Hospitals to help support those staff who would benefit from improving their numeracy. They are using the National Numeracy Challenge, an online resource which allows staff to check if they have the Essentials of Numeracy and use learning resources to improve. It is designed to place questions in real life situations and adapt to learners’ level, helping people see the value of maths and not feel overwhelmed or put off by questions which are too difficult. The Challenge is now equipped with a psychometric attitudinal survey giving staff a unique insight into their own barriers to learning and a suite of purchasable attitudinal e-learning modules. 

There is no need to let mindsets, mentality and maths hold people back. With value, belief and effort anyone can improve. For more information on any of our tools please visit our website or contact me on [email protected] 

*false names have been used to protect the confidentiality of learners 

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Ben Perkins

Ben is Partner Support Coordinator at the independent charity National Numeracy. The charity aims to help raise low levels of numeracy among both adults and children and to promote the importance of everyday maths skills.

Ben works with employers, unions and other partners to support them in improving numeracy skills amongst their team.