Mental health at business school: ‘The anxiety was overwhelming’
“By the time it got to exam time, the level of anxiety and panic I was feeling became almost overwhelming,” says Reet Sen, who graduated from Hult International Business School in 2015.
“The pressure to be top dog in class, to network effectively and to maintain my grades was made worse by the need to maintain a stiff upper lip in front of classmates and staff.”
The Australian studied in the US to challenge himself in a foreign market. His biggest worry was how and where to find a job after graduation (he went on to join a London-based business development consultancy). For other business school students, however, it may be work or family commitments that lead to anxiety and depression.
Business school courses are demanding. A typical London Business School (LBS) Executive MBA student spends two full days a fortnight in the classroom and completes about 20 hours of independent study each week. At Cranfield School of Management, individual study time is about 12 hours a week, with three full days spent in class each month. Preparatory reading, research and assignments are extra.
Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency in the UK indicate that the total number of higher education students — undergraduates, postgraduates and MBAs — with mental health conditions rose from 13,060 in 2010 to 35,500 in 2015. During the same period, dropout rates among these same students more than tripled.
Mental health problems at postgraduate level globally are increasing, says Andrew Main Wilson, chief executive of the Association of MBAs, and curricula are changing in response. Its research in 2016 found that, from among more than 2,000 member business schools from 104 countries, stress management skills were included in 37 per cent of MBA programmes. Such courses “would have been unheard of 15 years ago”, he says, adding that the trend reflects a growing demand for training among students and employers.
“With 80 per cent of members saying that the ability to handle stress will be looked for by employers, this still leaves a skills gap,” Mr Main Wilson says.
Of the 350 EMBA students who enrol at LBS each year, approximately 1.5 per cent interrupt their course for personal or professional reasons but later return to complete it. A further 1.5 per cent of students leave before they graduate.
“Self-awareness is a key part of our leadership training and is helping to challenge the stereotype of a macho business executive who cannot admit to any vulnerability,” says Arnold Longboy, executive director of leadership programmes. “But this is only the start of a long journey.”
At Nottingham University Business School, where the EMBA cohort is about 100, the dropout rate is around 1 per cent, says Elaine Kay, education manager. She believes that the flexibility of the course — which typically takes between two and four years to complete, but which can be extended to six — helps to reduce the challenges of studying while working.
Modules on managing stress and anxiety are not necessarily labelled that way on curricula, but schools cover the topic in a number of ways.
At Cranfield, for example, students study mindfulness (a meditation technique) and personal resilience, as part of an element called “leadership and organisational behaviour”.
Other schools include stress management and mental health in compulsory or optional “soft-skills” programmes.
Mr Main Wilson says line managers in the workplace, faculty and staff must all take responsibility for spotting early warning signs of mental health problems among students.
At Hult, academics and support staff receive training on how to “identify students who may be facing mental health or stress-related challenges” and can refer them to the full-time campus counsellor, says Amy Van Aarle, vice-president of global brand.
Mr Sen says that he did not think of asking for help at Hult because it would have made him “look weak” among his peers. He felt there was an onus on him to “be a grown-up and sort things out for myself”.
Students at Warwick Business School are invited to use welfare services on the main university campus — among them, drop-in sessions with counsellors. But Mr Main Wilson stresses that the challenges faced by business school students are different from those of undergraduates.
“Many business school students will have been in leadership positions for years, will have become accustomed to stressful situations and will be less likely to be in a position where they would wish to discuss any mental health issues on campus,” he says.
“The MBA is a new learning curve . . . being in a class with high-performing and impressive colleagues can increase the pressure to succeed.” He believes that, ideally, every business school should have its own mental health support services.
James, a former IT marketing manager who does not want to use his real name, dropped out of his part-time MBA at Warwick after a period of depression. He says mental health problems were taboo for many students.
“Although I was confident academically, the need to be seen to outshine my peers at every opportunity and to juggle my job and family alongside intensive studying took its toll.”
“While the extensive support services available via the main university campus were, to be fair, clearly signposted, by that stage I felt that even an initial consultation with a counsellor would have been an admission of failure.”
After a prolonged period of stress-related insomnia, James broke down in front of his classmates at a networking event.
His colleagues told him to “cheer up and have another drink”, he says.
“What I really needed was to talk to a professional and to stop hiding how I was feeling, but it was made plain to me that soul-baring was for wimps, not for men of the world.”
He still suffers from depression and anxiety from time to time but believes that being in the “MBA bubble” made his emotional problems particularly intense.
Mental health at business school: the research
The ability to handle stress has overtaken leadership and problem-solving skills as the most-prized skill for employers, according to research by the Association of MBAs in 2016.
The “perceived mental health skills gap” is on a par with that of digital marketing and new technology. The organisation’s members believe stress management should become a core component of all MBA programmes.
About 80 per cent of employers expect staff to be able to handle stress and more than 70 per cent seek “decisive recruits who can quickly address and solve problems”.