Stress and the MBA

One of the first things you are likely to hear about an MBA is that it is very stressful. The competition for academic achievement, the need to perform, the enormous volumes of work and the time constraints of study, work and family are all the obvious stressors that come to mind when people think of an MBA. But these are just the tip of the iceberg – there are often more subtle stressors at play that you should be aware of before making this important decision.

Before condemning stress outright, we need to understand that stress is only harmful when it is excessive. All of us experience stress on a regular basis and most of this stress is actually positive, serving to motivate and stimulate us. In general, MBA students tend to be very driven people who are career oriented and are already fairly used to having a large amount of motivational stress in their lives. The problem arises when you experience too much stress.

Stress is a physical and psychological reaction to issues and events that come from your environment. Perceived obstacles to goal achievement, environmental change, life challenges and periods of significant transition are common stress triggers for people both in and out of the academic environment.

Although individual differences influence the way we experience and deal with stress, there are certain common events that all of us experience as stressful. Several studies have shown that about 50 major life events can be ranked according to the degree of stress they tend to cause and the extent to which that stress carries a risk of illness or psychiatric disorders. The greater the number of life events we experience, the higher our risk of developing a problematic degree of stress. Beginning or ceasing formal education is ranked second to last on this list – which seems fairly benign until you couple it with some of the other stressors that are likely to accompany the MBA.

The average age of an MBA student in South Africa is around 34. At this stage, the majority of people looking at an MBA have a management level career and often a young family as well. Both of these can be a source of stress when coupled with the rigorous demands of the course and also a potential breeding ground for discontent.

MBA, your job and finances
Research has shown that, while undertaking an MBA, the majority of students will change jobs at least once and again within six months of completing the degree (job change is number 33 on the list of stressful events). This is often the result of the individual feeling that they are not being given the responsibilities, stature and remuneration that they feel they deserve in their current position and as they progress through the MBA programme, they feel an added confidence in their abilities, not only to perform better, but to seek a position that will reward them for this (change in work responsibilities, number 45 on the list). This new learning curve, additional responsibilities and the need to succeed or prove yourself in a new position, can add vast amounts of stress, particularly when trying to balance the additional after-hours requirements of a new job and study.

Many part-time MBA students are fortunate enough to have their companies pay for all of their studies. But others are burdened with the huge financial responsibility of having to pay for the programme – or at least part of it – himself or herself. Many people feel that these financial burdens will only affect them in the short run and that in the long term they will be better rewarded for having completed the degree. Although this is true in Europe and the USA, a recent Financial Mail survey indicated that by far the majority of South African employers said that they would not pay an MBA more! This can leave the recent graduate disillusioned in the degree as well as financially burdened with a large portion of debt from which to get out of (financial problems or difficulties are number 14 on the list).

MBA students may also feel a certain amount of peer pressure as they see fellow students get promoted (number 43 on the list of stressors) or find alternative employment that is more financially rewarding. These people often feel a need to “keep up with the Jone’s” even if they are not in a financial position to do so.

Part-time students need to remember that no matter how well the MBA programme is structured, there will undoubtedly be times when you will need to take time off work for the MBA. On some programmes this will be for classes, exams or excursions and trips. But even if your MBA doesn’t require time-off on the surface, remember you will need to make time for syndicate groups, studying for exams, research and project work – and last but certainly not least – your thesis or research project! During these times, you will often feel the stress most and your work colleagues may bear the brunt of your stress. Disagreements with a boss or co-worker (number 39) may result, and the company could begin to see the student as a “slacker” or “chancer” who is always taking time off and is no longer focused on his or her job at hand. Being fired (number 13) and/or being disciplined or demoted (number 23) at work, may result.

The catch 22 is that if, on the other hand, the student puts his or her job first, he or she may experience pressure from fellow syndicate members who feel he or she is not performing – and the other possible risk for the part-time student is that their grades could start to show signs of neglect when the student is focused on their jobs.

MBA and family
So far, we’ve focused on the career/study dynamic of the MBA, but it would be remiss not to address the stress that an MBA can put on family. The MBA is also known to some as “the divorce course” (number 7 on the list of stressors and child support disagreement is 23) and not without good reason. In addition to the obvious time constraints of the MBA for classes, study, exams, syndicate meetings and other activities that take you away from your family, there is also another phenomenon on the MBA that is not often spoken about or addressed.

An MBA is a very condensed and powerful course in business management and leadership. As you progress through the course and it’s rigours, it is impossible not to think of your future and your career. You are striving to change and to improve yourself, so that the opportunities you desire will become available to you. Those with spouses who may have chosen to stay at home with young children or who are not growing in their careers or pursuing activities outside the home, may find that they feel they have “outgrown” their spouse and have little in common that they can talk about. In this case, it is often beneficial for the spouse to spend some of the time they have on their own taking a course, exploring a new hobby or meeting new people. Often spouses of MBA students get together and form a supportive circle of friends to help each other through.

For a free and confidential stress assessment, call The Stress Clinic at one of it’s nationwide branches for more information on their stress management programmes:

  • Johannesburg - head office: (011) 880-2334
  • Pretoria: (012) 342-5020
  • Cape Town: (021) 423-2488
  • Durban: (031) 336-2551
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