By Pernille Steen Pedersen
CBS has put increasing focus this year on stress, loneliness, and challenges due to Covid among the students. I am pleased that these important topics receive more attention strategically and across units at CBS. We need, as an educational institution, a culture where student well-being is addressed explicitly; as something we talk about, aloud and often, and for which we continue to examine current practices and develop new initiatives and measures. The aim is clear: to enhance well-being among students across CBS. For this, we need a broad and diverse variety of options that staff within different units and functionalities at CBS can use to work with well-being, like a compressive catalogue of knowledge, inspirations for dialogues, concrete initiatives and more. It is important, however, to ensure that this new responsibility to carry out well-being efforts, by for example Program Directors, does not become an additional pressure on CBS staff, who themselves have been through a challenging time with great changes in their work-lives. Many are currently in the process of returning to the offices again, recovering and readjusting. To undertake new well-being initiatives requires both knowledge and time. This accentuates the need for a collaborative effort and the development of well-being material and approaches that can be used widely at CBS. Collaboration is essential here, to include different units who have distinct needs, experiences, and perspectives, and engages with students in different ways. Through my work, I am following these movements at CBS closely and considering how best to contribute to the process, and to support CBS staff in taking responsibility and action regarding student well-being. I am currently in dialogue with many people in different programs and functionalities at CBS on how create material and methods to address this topic, for example, at introduction weeks for new students. This includes dialogues with students too, who are my closest sparring partners in finding ways that work for them in practice. The transformation that needs to happen is within the relational context and can only happen in collaboration. In other words, the transformational spaces, and opportunities that we need to create are relational, like, for example, creating safer study communities.
June means that summer is near, but it also marks the end of the academic school year and across different educational institutions in Denmark students are preparing for exams. The examinations, however, is connected to great amount of anxiety for many young people. “Students calm the nerves with beta blockers” read the headline of an article brought by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, DR, on their website in early June. The danish media started reporting on a widespread use of drugs among students to help manage anxiety in relation with exams, putting focus on an important societal problem. For example, Bo Møhl, Professor of Psychology from Ålborg University, said on the evening news that “we have to see it as a sign of crisis when young people take medicine in order to perform. Then it says something about a sick culture.” Pernille Steen Pedersen also engaged in this public debate through a chronicle in Berlingske Tidende, which originally was titled “Safe study environments to prevent exam anxiety," making clear, that she believes that changes need to be made within the study culture. The newspaper renamed the article "Researcher: more students are taking anxiety medicine - I have asked them why," referring to Pedersen’s recent research project and interviews with students at CBS.
If students for example google ”good advice for exam anxiety”, Pedersen explains in the chronicle, they are predominately met with tips or offers tailored to the individual. In other words, the tendency is to place the responsibility on the individual, for both the reasons to why they are experiencing stress or anxiety, and for finding solutions. This is problematic, because not only can it for some lead to an additional sense of shame or blame, it also overlooks some underlying causes to why certain situations and environments trigger stress for many people. Stress, in Pedersen’s view, is never only about the individual. There will be reasons to find within the relations, specific types of situations and organizational culture that triggers responses of stress or anxiety. Surely, learning some individual tips to manage different kinds of worries and anxiety is useful, but in a larger picture it cannot solve the more fundamental problem of why people, in this case students, experience this level of stress in the first place. Therefore, instead of focusing on how individual students can manage their own exam anxiety, Pedersen raises another question to ponder: "How can educational institutions, including teachers, fellow students, and administrative staff, help to create a culture that can prevent exam anxiety from becoming such a major problem that anti-anxiety drugs are needed?" This inquiry sets the direction of Pedersen’s research project on stress and well-being among students at CBS.
Six months into her 3-year research initiative, Pedersen already has some initial findings and ideas for preventative measures, based on over 20 qualitative interviews with students thus far. She has identified some different aspects in the study environment and culture around being a CBS student as potential triggers for stress (e.g., issues within group work, pressure from ideas of the ideal CBS student, pressure to perform and conduct studies like a career, sense of expectations to be social in specific ways). Solutions, then, must also be at the level of organizational culture and practices within the study programs. In the chronicle Pedersen shares an excerpt from an interview with a student that accentuates the need for collective “relational” ways to mitigate stress and lack of well-being:
Collective solutions and safe study environments
”I have seen that there are educational institutions offering courses to us students on how to manage stress. But it is, after all, just as important to learn how to manage in order not to become stressed. If you experience stress, because you are not feeling safe in your study environment, then what can we do to make people feel safe in their studies? I mean, it is not helpful to say: this is how you manage stress. Then you will just learn to manage your stress symptoms, but that doesn't help you feel safer. If I then recover from my stress, it is not like then I am back at my studies and think “now I have the courage to raise my hand, just a bit less stressed now”.”
Pedersen suggests that safe study environment can help prevent stress among students, including the specific anxiety related to exams. "We need to stand together as an educational institution and think in terms of safety-invoking activities as an essential part of the work with well-being among students," she writes in the chronicle.
A focus on transformation
Lifting the gaze from the individual to the collective also implies looking for long-term solutions and more foundational improvements for the benefit of the entire study culture. The ambition to create an environment that enhances well-being among students has been emphasized – and received increased focus – in CBS’s strategic plan for the next 5 years. With a vision to be “a transformational business school” CBS expresses a desire to take greater social responsibility in society but also when it comes to the well-being of the students. Working with transformation can be in different areas and ways. There is the transformation in society, which necessitates understanding societal challenges and close collaboration with practitioners. There is the potential for transformation in and through our academic work, like in the form of method development, collaborating across units (breaking silos), and creating new ways of teaching, and researching. And lastly, there is the transformative potential for the individual, which concerns growth and life-skills for both staff and students. There three aspects of course overlap and mutually influence each other, and the vision of Pedersen’s project is to interweave them. To further define and refine what these aspects means and practically entails, as well as to develop the specific measures, are work that will be developed throughout the project. Six months into the project, Pedersen is in the process of mapping the areas, topics. and situations where stress becomes an issue among students at CBS. This will build the base of understanding necessary to tackle given issues, as well as set the direction of where efforts are most needed. Some areas Pedersen currently have identified, where she is in the process of developing measures includes, for example:
These are some of the areas Pedersen currently is working on in close collaboration with both student and staff, from an explorative point of departure that keeps asking new questions and going deeper to uncover underlying reasons to why and how students experience stress.
- Introduction week: Pedersen is creating a package with informative material, presentation, and exercises to address stress and well-being at the introduction week of a few programs. A part of this includes the doubts and insecurities students can feel about their choice of study. This material be tested in the fall, evaluated, and further developed and refined.
- Challenges in group work: The research has shown that group work is quite significant as a potential trigger for stress. Pedersen is exploring this topic deeper, looking into underlying reasons and nuances, while also drafting methods, material, and exercises to address these challenges in new ways.
- Culture around “the ideal CBS student”: Interviews have identified that many students experience a pressure from ideas of an ideal CBS students, which they cannot live up to – this includes topics like grades, student job, ambitions, ways to be social etc.
A few months into the project, Pernille Steen Pedersen has already gained some initial insights from the first rounds of qualitative interviews with students, and some findings have surprised her. In this blog post, she will share some of the first finding. However, let us start at the beginning: “First, I want to start by sharing how I have designed my interviews. I find that stress and well-being is a contested area, and we cannot assume to have all the answers. I therefore want to use the initial round of interviews to map out which in kind of situations stress and lack of well-being becomes an issue for CBS students. Where is it, that you might feel your well-being challenged as a student? I believe that there are some aspects of this we are not familiar with yet, in research and in practice; aspects that we need more information on” Pedersen says, introductory.
An open approach
Pedersen approaches the interviews with an exploratory approach, asking open questions and inviting the students to bring up issues they perceive as relevant. Therefore, she does not follow a detailed or strict interview guide, but her ambition is to get deeper into the students’ lived experiences related to pressure, stress and well-being. “I have asked everyone, what they associate with stress and well-being, and in which kind of situations they might have experienced increased pressure or even stress” Pedersen elaborates on her interview method. The conversations take off from there and depend on the individual student’s experiences and reflections. Some of the students have had stress, some have been on sick-leave and yet some have no direct experience of stress. This variety of experiences is important to Pedersen, in order to get a broad selection of perspectives and experiences. To stay within the initial open inquiry, Pedersen has refrained from reading more into new topics in the literature, as of yet.
A surprising discovery: group work as a major trigger for stress
That many students might experience increased pressure and stress related to examinations, does not surprise Pedersen; neither does the finding, that students’ demands and high levels of expectations on themselves can give rise to stress and a sense of pressure to perform and be in a certain way. These are two types of situations that Pedersen saw present for many students through her research, something she had expected, but a third type stress triggering situation took her by surprise: issues around group work. “I did not see it coming, but completely unmotivated the topic of group work was brought up in almost all the interviews. In one interview it was only mentioned after being confronted with the question: “What is your experiences with group-work”. In all other interviews it was something the students brought up on their own, when asked broadly into stress and pressure. It surprised me. Therefore, this is something I want to explore deeper and develop specific questions for, such that I can examine the details of what it is within group work, that produces feelings of pressure and stress for many students” Pedersen says.
She explains that some of this comes down to expectations. It can for example be in the form of students being worried of not living up to the group’s expectation. It can also be that varying levels of ambitions among students in a group makes some group members feel, that they have to compromise quite a bit with how they would want to do the work. This produces a tension within the group and for the individuals too. This tension, in turn, gives rise to worrying thoughts like “what are the others thinking about me, am I doing my part of the work good enough, am I good enough” and Pedersen says, that it can be difficult to express this doubt aloud. Therefore, it becomes a form of pressure, also deriving from ideas about how the ideal student ought to be. “Across all my interviews I can see a commonality in thoughts about how one is perceived by others, what others might think, and one’s own demands and expectations on oneself; this is a concern that takes up quite some space for many and it becomes accentuated within the relation of group work” Pedersen shares.
Literature on group work and dynamics within groups is not in lack, but there is a big step to take from reading about it and then knowing how to address group work challenges in practice in constructive ways. Albeit students often read about group work in methodology books, when in practice they experience problems in the group it can feel awkward, uncomfortable and even stressful to put it into words in the group, feeling like they are not fully equipped to do it in a good way. “This is something, we have to look into” Pedersen asserts, “to help students become better equipped to manage within challenges of group work; a life-skill that is much needed also when they enter the job market.”
Bad conscience and pressure: when being a student becomes a career
Pedersen also saw another significant trigger for stress in the first rounds of interviews: a pressure students experience from an ideal about the perfect CBS student. “It is like many students have an idea about what it means to be a successful CBS student, which for example includes having a career-advancing student job, a very active social life and be active and engaged in the studies” Pedersen found. The consequence is, however, that many students feel a constant bad conscience, deriving from an experience that they cannot perform good enough on all the many different aspects of being a CBS student. Pedersen puts it bluntly: “It is like many students experience as if they are starting their career at the same time as their studies, or that their studies become a form of career.”
It is too simple, she elaborates, to boil this down to a perfectionist culture and that the students have too high expectations of themselves. According to Perdersen, being a CBS student brings about some specific ideas, expectations and demands, that we need to acknowledge and look at. For example, some students share that during the introduction weeks, as they enter their new study programs, the importance of being social was strongly emphasized, and social in a certain way that might not fit with everyone. “Many students feel a pressure to be social and social in a specific way, to be active within the classes, but also in their free time, alongside having a good student job and doing their studies; it is a significant pressure” Pedersen says, and adds “of course, some of these expectations comes from within themselves, from the ideas they have about how to be a CBS student and how to do well, what it takes to succeed as a student – it takes up a lot of space inside, but often such reflections are not shared with others. Many keep it to themselves, thinking others manage things well and have everything under control. But really, it is a very common experience, and we need to look deeper into this.”
Stress cannot be reduced to the individual, nor solved
There are two central premises in Pedersen’s research on work-related stress and shame, applicable across different organizations and groups of people, that both signifies and differentiates Pedersen’s take on working with stress. The first argument is that stress never only is about the individual. In this view, stress cannot be reduced to the person experiencing stress and perhaps the leader attending to an employee in stress. Pedersen has shown that work-related stress is connected to shame, and shame, as a root human emotion, arise in our thoughts and experiences in the relations to others. It is a relational and intra-personal phenomenon. This places stress within the relational context of work-life, emphasizing the importance of the work culture or a study environment. This is why, Pedersen repeatedly speaks about the importance creating a connected culture, like initiatives and measures within the relational dynamics and general environment. There exist many excellent offers already for how individuals can manage through times of stress, but less knowledge and practical measures on how to address the roots of stress within a larger organizational sphere. This is where Pedersen seeks to make her contribution in tight collaboration with students, the study administration and other people and units at CBS.
The second argument Pedersen makes is that stress should not be approach as something to be solved, but rather as something to be managed. She elaborates: “We cannot always “solve” stress, for example that might imply telling people to have less of ambitions or to take on less work, perhaps a manager will remove some tasks, but for some people, that is not a long-term solution. In some cases, it might even trigger even more stress, or feelings of shame and inadequacy. What is needed then, is to learn to manage these feelings, thoughts and expectations, individually and together in the work or study environment; the ability to handle a conflict in a new way”. When it comes to group work for students, Pedersen explains, that it is not possible to remove the differences and occasional tensions within a group. In fact, that should not be the aim, but what is possible, is to learn to manage these differences in constructive ways – and in this manner, reduce potential stress.
A great potential in learning to manage differences well
Since people are different, their ways of interacting in groups will be different, their ways of learning are different and their ambitions differs, but they have to work together. It is unrealistic to believe that people can become more alike within a group, nor is it desirable. Pedersen’s aspiration is to understand the ways group work triggers stress among students and on this basis develop ways for students to acquire capabilities to manage group work challenges. To Pedersen, this is incredibly important to address and valuable in both short and long-term, as similar dynamics will be found in work-life situations after the students graduate. “We have to be better to talk together, to balance and match expectations, to work constructively with giving and receiving feedback, and to give room for each other’s differences. I think there is a significant need for concrete tools and practical skills to facilitate good dialogues in groups - and a great potential. It is something that needs to be practiced, not only read about in books,” Pedersen says, as the final remark.