Tackling Mental Health on MBA Programs

The pandemic added to academic pressures and revealed the importance of self-care to professional success

Safeguarding the mental health for MBA students has always been a priority for business schools, but the coronavirus pandemic and now war in Ukraine has added to the pressures of academic life and promoted institutions to double down on wellbeing support services.

Recent world events have also revealed the importance of self-care to professional success, both individually and as a manager, with happy and heathy workforces generally more productive.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has brought wellness and mental health into sharper focus,” says  Sandra Richez, MBA director at EDHEC Business School in France. “International students have been particularly hard hit because they may not find support easily. And, they often need it more because they are far from their families and outside of their home country.”

The pandemic has been particularly isolating for these students, she says. “Financial stability and wellness were impacted, creating further stress.”

Furthermore, MBA programs are intense at the best of times, and they attract high potential students with ambitious goals. “It can sometimes be uncomfortable for students to speak up or seek help when facing difficulties,” says Richez. “Most students have left their jobs, countries and sometimes their families to study, so it is a considerable challenge to overcome.”

At EDHEC, MBA students are offered personal development courses that focus on resilience, diversity and inclusion, leadership coaching and handling conflict. This prepares them to be better listeners, ask questions, and genuinely engage with others, which helps them during the program and beyond, according to Richez.

“They graduate with a better understanding of common workplace issues that create stress, misunderstanding or bias,” she says. “We encourage them to bring more inclusive attitudes to their future workplaces because we know that mental health and wellness are becoming more and more critical in the corporate world. Businesses need managers who can manage their own stress and self-awareness and, at the same time, support team members going through a difficult period.”

Prioritizing wellness in the Zoom era

Against a backdrop of a mental health epidemic in the workplace, Songwen Chen, an MBA candidate at the University of California Bekeley Haas School of Business, agrees with Richez.

“Through an MBA, business students have the unique opportunity to develop not only business, but also leadership skills,” he says. “Because of the latter, [MBA students] are conditioned to serve as empathetic and compassionate leaders who can effectively empower and support others in their workplaces.”

He says Haas has been supportive of student wellbeing and of destigmatizing mental health, while two new student organizations established operations in the past year: the Wellness Club and the HaasAbilities club. “We continue to see how the pandemic has been negatively impacting students,” Chen says.

“Last year, anxiety from isolation and constant Zoom classes really dampened class morale,” he says. “With constantly evolving public health and campus guidelines, there definitely has been a collective fatigue around new restrictions. Yet, simultaneously, we are also seeing how resilient our peers have been and how they continue to step up with acts of kindness.”

There is plenty that students themselves can do to cope with the pressures of academic life, according to Mika Hyden, an MBA candidate at Haas. “Students should prioritize activities and lifestyles that allow them to take care of their physical and mental health such as getting enough sleep and regularly exercising,” she says. “There are also other activities such as meditation and mindfulness with studied benefits to mental wellness.”

In addition, students should actively work to de-stigmatize talking about and supporting each other’s mental health, adds Hyden. “Establishing communities and cultures that prioritize and promote wellness in MBA programs will likely expand into workplaces as MBA students graduate into the workforce with these values.”

Building supportive relationships

Patrick McCarthy, director of student affairs at the Carlson School of Management in Minneapolis, also takes a pragmatic perspective. “Students have taken on larger responsibilities for their student community, creating and sustaining events for their classmates and events that bring students and alumni together,” he says. “There is a strong desire to establish or re-establish a sense of community following the pandemic and it’s separating effects.”

Student mental health is a topic that the Carlson School seeks to address as students start the MBA program. “We share the issues we commonly see in the program experience and continue to share messaging on programs and activities such as Mental Health Awareness Week,” says McCarthy.

“Prior to the pandemic, students were very aware of our messaging and were able to both trust and discuss their health and where to get support while they were in the program,” he adds. “During the pandemic, the distance created by the virtual nature of delivery created additional challenges in forming relationships and establishing trust. Now that we are in-person, we are able to once again address stigma and create supportive relationships.”

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