Do your employees struggle with maths?

Improving numeracy skills and confidence with numbers makes workers happier and more productive. Paul Foss explains how employers can help

Imagine someone asked you to work out 49 per cent of 42 million. Did you feel something? A rush of blood? Butterflies in the stomach? Eager to get to the answer, or starting to feel a bit nervous? Are you back at school, being put on the spot and feel the need to get an answer out quickly? 

What if I said you can take your time? Use a calculator, or your phone? Maybe Google it? Is the tension easing a little? For some, using a tool will help. Not for others. 

Time to put you out of your misery. The answer is 20,580,000. Perhaps, like me, you didn’t have time to work it out but used estimation instead. My method is to work out half of 42 million (21 million) and know that the answer must be just a little less.

So why did I put you through this? Because 49 per cent of working age adults have the numeracy skills of a primary school child. Forty-nine per cent of 42 million people are not able to work out what 49 per cent of 42 million is, with a calculator, with a pen and paper and without time pressure. That’s more than 20 million people with low numeracy skills, struggling to work out percentages, and therefore engage in most financial transactions like tax, credit cards, mortgages or pensions. Some of them probably work in your organisation, and probably more of them than you might think. 

But numeracy isn’t just about skills. It’s also about confidence – and the interplay between skills and confidence. Maths anxiety is almost as rife as low skills among the UK population. Nearly a third of UK adults (31 per cent) say they are not a ‘numbers person’, and one in four people would be deterred from applying for a job if it listed using numbers and data as a requirement. A lack of confidence with numbers is limiting career potential across all industries. 

And for those in work, a lack of confidence can cause stress in the workplace. A lack of confidence with numbers and data – which we know to be a widespread issue, particularly among women – can prevent capable employees from putting themselves forward for development or promotion. Productivity is also affected: the cost of poor numeracy to the UK economy has been estimated by Pro Bono Economics to be £388m per week

But there is good news. Improving numeracy (both skills and confidence) can make our employees happier and more productive. At National Numeracy, we have plenty of case studies that show how improving numeracy boosts self-confidence and helps people to engage more fully at work, become more self-assured, and therefore help their organisation to flourish. This can only be done in the right environment – one in which people can feel safe talking about their maths anxiety or low skills level. 

Checking and improving numeracy and confidence with numbers can be achieved in a number of ways:

Signposting employees to our free to access the National Numeracy Challenge website. This can also be helped by leveraging National Numeracy’s knowledge of what motivates people of different ages and genders to want to improve their numeracy. For example, ‘helping children with their homework’ is particularly motivating for the 30-49 age bracket, and especially for women

Embedding a numeracy programme into learning and development programmes. This could include a face-to-face session from National Numeracy, which is already fully developed and delivered widely in the NHS, where the cohorts have been predominantly women. These sessions have received very positive feedback and where properly supported – by action plans, senior buy-in and the appropriate level of embedding and mandating the challenge process – have always led to significant improvements in numeracy levels in terms of both skills and confidence. 

By providing the support to enable all staff to check and improve their numeracy using the National Numeracy Challenge, we can create a happier, more engaged, more confident and more productive workforce. 

Ready to start? Good – just another 20,579,999 to go...

Paul Foss is data analyst and financial capability lead at National Numeracy