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In September this year, full-time and executive MBA students from the Queen’s School of Business in Kingston, Ontario, embarked on a virtual walk across Canada, in which collectively the teams notched up 8,000 miles. The idea was to encourage students to develop a healthy, balanced life that would stand them in good stead in the cut and thrust of business life.

For the executive students on that march, the work-life balance issue would have already seemed very real. For while it is tough enough balancing professional life with family and friendships, having to study at the same time puts executive MBA students under even more pressure than their full-time counterparts.

For a start, executives are often already putting extra time into their professional life. Most managers work longer than their contracted working week – 85 per cent said they did in 2006, and 83 per cent agreed, in both 2005 and 2004, according to research by the Roffey Park Institute in the UK.

Moreover, global executive MBA programmes require travelling. EMBA Global, for example, is a joint venture between Columbia Business School and London Business School that includes time spent in Asia, Europe and South America.

Managing the pressure of an EMBA involves forward planning. Linda Holbeche, director of leadership and consultancy at the Work Foundation, suggests looking to what life holds in store for the coming year. “There will be certain key points in people’s lives that they can anticipate,” she says. “Because you only need one or two things kicking in while you’re studying for the whole thing to become impossible.”

Future-gazing should include potential work pressures, too. If, for example, an executive is supposed to be launching a new product or marketing initiative, it might be worth considering delaying their studies.

Ms Holbeche says that finding a course that includes material related to working life is also important. “Choose something where you’re going to be working live on relevant issues,” she says. “Then you’re benefiting your organisation because you’re getting peer feedback and tutor feedback on real life business issues.”

Many schools hold sessions to give potential participants a clear picture of what the course will entail before they have even decided on taking the programme.

“What we try to do with executives as they’re considering the programme is give them a realistic preview of what they’re getting into,” says Hugh O’Neill, chair and associate professor of management at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We also talk about the choice between full-time and executive studies – and for some, given the constraints, the full-time option may make more sense.”

Once executives have embarked on the programme, schools try to ease the burden. At the Stern School of Business at New York University, schedules are constructed in such a way that participants rarely have to worry about having a paper due in the same week as a test, or having to prepare for a presentation and write a paper simultaneously.

The school also organises an EMBA holiday party that includes spouses and children and a “Partners Day” in the autumn giving spouses and partners a full day of activities while the students are in class.

“It allows the family to get a flavour of the programme, as well to get a feel for how other people are coping by talking to the other partners,” says Jaki Sitterle, head of the executive programme at Stern. “Executives need the support of their families to make this viable because it is hugely demanding.”

In some instances, dealing with the work-life-study balance is even part of the curriculum. At Kenan-Flagler, a course taken early on in the programme on organisational leadership focuses on setting priorities – both in work and outside it – and on stress management.

“Those two are early conversations introduced in the curriculum,” explains Prof O’Neill. “While they’re designed to teach students how to manage, they also teach them how not only to survive but also do well on an executive MBA.”

It is up to the individual to achieve the right balance.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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