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How business schools are helping stressed-out MBAs to cope

In 2016, the London-based Association of MBAs 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 programs because of rising mental-health challenges at the graduate level.

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There's no denying that the world of business can come with intense pressure and immense stress. For those with an MBA or executive MBA to their name, the strain can start on campus.

The workload in such programs is tremendous. EMBA students at Smith School of Business at Queen's University, for example, can expect to put in about 25 hours a week on top of their work and family obligations, according to Elspeth Murray, the school's associate dean of MBA and master programs. If those external demands aren't enough, many place intense pressure on themselves to excel or outdo their classmates.

"These are students coming from a variety of fields who are usually top in their class," adds Michael Maier, associate dean of master programs at the University of Alberta's business school. "They may be getting Bs when they're used to getting all As. It's humbling."

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Although figures don't exist for Canadian institutions, research by the Higher Education Statistics Agency in Britain shows that mental-health conditions among higher education students – which include undergraduates, postgraduates and MBAs – rose to 35,500 in 2015 from 13,060 in 2010. Dropout rates among these same learners more than tripled during the same period.

In 2016, the London-based Association of MBAs 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 programs because of rising mental-health challenges at the graduate level.

With universities increasingly sensitive to mental health, especially as the subject gains greater awareness through initiatives like this month's Bell Let's Talk day on Jan. 31, several business schools across Canada are taking steps to address related challenges among its MBA and EMBA students.

While all students at the University of Toronto have access to its central health and counselling services, two years ago its Rotman School of Management implemented an embedded counsellor specifically for its students. Similarly, while there's a multifaith space at U of T for all students seeking a place for prayer or quiet contemplation, Rotman recently created a similar room within its own building. Students are also connected with "buddies" and career coaches, who are all well-versed in what supports are available to students who may be struggling.

Neel Joshi, director of student life and international experience at Rotman, says the school's approach to mental health among its students is holistic, with different supports available to respond to various student needs. The multifaith centre, for instance, came in response to feedback from one student who found it difficult to make his way to the U of T space to pray several times a day.

"The MBA students literally don't necessarily get out of the building that often," Mr. Joshi says. "So even though there are central resources, we're making them more accessible within the building to make things easier for students. Students who pray or just need a place for silence and reflection can do that without having to exit the building."

Rotman also has a "learning strategist" to assist students, and while that role may not seem to be directly related to mental health, Mr. Joshi notes that the triggers for mental-health problems can include exams. For many students, it's been years since they've had to prepare for and cope with such tests. During the program's intense periods, students also have access to everything from yoga and Bollywood dance classes to therapy dogs and massage.

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"It's not one single solution," Mr. Joshi says. "It could be a combination of different factors that are going to support them. We try to proactively help students navigate the highs and lows. It's really a team and a village approach."

At Alberta's school of business in Edmonton, mental health is addressed right from the moment students have their orientation, Mr. Maier says.

"The first thing I tell students is don't expect to be perfect," he says. "Expect to fail and fail gracefully. We try and set expectations appropriately, and we say to focus on getting the knowledge, not the grades, understanding the principles and applications."

Staff members and professors also take mental-health awareness training and learn to look for manifestations of extreme stress or mental-health issues that may not seem obvious, such as absenteeism, cheating or plagiarism.

"If they do really poorly on a midterm, we will bring them in and try and figure out what's going on," Mr. Maier says. "It could be a sign that something deeper is going on, especially for students doing an executive MBA, who are trying to work and who have families; it's a lot of balls they're trying to keep in the air."

Then there's "anti-burnout" week for MBA students, when they have the chance to take a break via yoga sessions or board games. "Furry friends," or therapy dogs, are brought in during exams here as well.

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Students at the Rowe School of Business at Dalhousie University in Halifax must take a four-course non-credit program called Personal and Professional Effectiveness (PPE). While much of it is focused on career management, it also touches on work-life balance, resilience, mindfulness and the importance of exercise and creative outlets.

"The foundation of our first year PPE course is reflection and emotional intelligence, so anxiety management and mental health are naturally topics that come up," says Dan Shaw, Rowe's director of the corporate residency MBA program. "In the first summer, each student is asked to focus in on one area for skill development and goal-setting. Every year, several students focus in on anxiety and stress management."

Smith at Queen's in Kingston offers MBA students Fit to Lead, an optional lifestyle coaching program that emphasizes mental, emotional and physical well-being. Ms. Murray notes that the school tries to stay ahead of mental-health problems; as at Rotman, it has its own dedicated, full-time counsellor, and the courses are team-based.

"All Smith School of Business MBA students have professional business coaches," Ms. Murray says. "Team coaches support the student teams, while personal coaches can help individual students work through challenges such as presentation anxiety or how to manage work-life-family balance.

"Coaches may probe if they see a red flag; some students self-identify an issue to their coach or program director. If a student is in crisis, we connect them with Queen's Student Wellness Services or encourage them to get support locally through a family doctor or, where possible, the student's Employee Assistance Plan."

One of the most effective practices the team coaches share with students is around allocating the workload responsibly to accommodate people's unique needs. For instance, if a student knows in advance of a heavy work or family commitment at a given time, the team can plan that individual's workload to be lighter at that point.

"For unplanned situations, such as a crisis, we coach our teams to recalibrate and rally around the team member in need.

"Certainly, studying for any graduate degree is intellectually challenging and can come with added stress," she adds. "We provide mental-health support at multiple stages of a student's time with us to ideally intercept issues early."

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