Wellbeing in business

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The University of Edinburgh Business School has created an undergraduate course that focuses solely on wellbeing.

Launched last year, Psychological Wellbeing in Business focuses on both professional and personal development, providing students with a toolkit for self-awareness, reflective practice, and skill development that they can continue to use for the rest of their lives. The course is available as a credit-bearing course to first year students and this first cohort has seen around 300 students take part.

Sophie Mitchinson, Teaching Assistant in the Business School, has worked alongside the development team, sharing her experiences and reflections as a recent graduate, and has stayed close to the student experience as a Teaching Assistant on the course. She shares more about how it came about: “The initial motivation for its creation was inspired by the University of Edinburgh Business School’s (UEBS) former Head of Undergraduate Programmes, Mary Brennan, who wanted to create a four-year development journey that would help enhance students’ confidence and employability skills as they progressed through their time at University and prepared them for their future careers. A journey that would help them really think about who they are and who they want to become when they graduate from the Business School. The Student Development Team in collaboration with their colleagues in the Careers Service set out in 2017/18 to turn this vision into a reality.”

Prioritising wellbeing

Recent events have acted as a catalyst for bringing the mental health of students into sharp focus. Sophie elaborates: “Students’ mental wellbeing is an increasingly salient concern within higher education and, while we were always keen to focus on students’ transition into higher education, the impact of Covid-19 on this transition naturally became a focus and has arguably been one of the biggest benefits of launching the course when we did.

“Being able to work with students right from the start of their degree, and to expose them to the breadth of support available, has been hugely rewarding and has highlighted the strength of our community and culture within the School.”

Sophie shares how listening to their students helped to shape the course:

“Feedback from senior students and recent graduates made it clear that on reflection, they could have been better equipped for the journey that lay ahead of them; they wished that they had started earlier to focus on their own personal and professional development.  It just didn’t feel like a priority in their first year. As a recent graduate myself, I was also aware of the experiences of many of my peers who had felt overwhelmed in their final year as they attempted to juggle their dissertation and career planning. In line with this feedback, we have worked hard over the last two years to bolster the support that is available for the final year students, but we truly hope that the earlier we can intervene, the more supported our students will feel.

“As a result, we wanted to use this course to nurture good habits and provide coping mechanisms at the start of their degree that would ease their transition to university but could also support them for the remainder of their degree and beyond.”

So what’s the best way to address these concerns? “For us, it was about equipping them with the tools and theories to maximise their four-year journey and to then prepare them for their transition out of higher education and into the workplace,” shares Sophie.

“In the context of a business degree, we also wanted our students to recognise examples of best practice regarding wellbeing in the workplace and to understand its importance to the company’s organisational culture,” she continues. “However, we do feel that this is important for all students to recognise and speaks to the transferability of the course content and its objectives. Like all Schools, we hope that the students engaging in this course will have the self-awareness and personal responsibility to shape their own development and to continue to pursue opportunities for lifelong learning, long after this course has finished.”

An interdisciplinary partnership

Although the creation and delivery of the course was difficult, Sophie is keen to stress seeing their students benefit from it has been incredibly satisfying: “It was challenging but rewarding to be able to leverage the knowledge and experience of Rona Doig, Head of Student Development, who has worked in industry for over 20 years and Tara Morrison, Lecturer in Business Education and Deputy Director of Undergraduate Programmes, and Marta Bernal Valencia, Lecturer in Business Education, who come from different academic backgrounds and groups, covering both psychology and business education. This interdisciplinary strategic partnership between academia and professional services ultimately adds to the richness of the course and the transferability of its concepts to the workplace.

“Understandably, pulling ideas from such different disciplines and continually having to view the project through multiple lenses did add to the complexity of the course’s design and create tensions,” continues Sophie. “Compromise, trust, and experimentation were, therefore, critical to the learning process, however, the breadth of experience undeniably enriched the course content and delivery.”

It was a short eight months between initial discussion of the course and the start of teaching. Although this added extra pressures, Sophie found it had an unexpected benefit: “The perfectionist in in each of us in the development team would have wanted or perhaps anticipated having more time to pull the course together. Looking back after the end of our second semester, however, we recognise that, in many respects, it was the perfect time to introduce this course. For one thing, students had already experienced one year of the pandemic, and we were already witnessing the toll that it was taking on their mental health.

“This, coupled with the fact that the 2021/22 first-year cohort was considerably bigger than in previous years, meant that we were able to support a larger number of students and, more importantly, at a time when they needed that support most. It was also important for us to impress upon students that their personal and professional development should be present in the curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular spaces as early as their first year.

“In this respect, the Business School continues to benefit from the investment it has made to support students professional and career development through, for example, its own Student Development Team having been operational since 2014 and the close collaboration with the Central Careers Service.”

As this course is still a pilot, the team has invested a lot of time and resources into its evaluation, both from a Teaching Assistant (TA) and student perspective. Sophie elaborates: “The feedback from the students has been overwhelmingly positive, however, the course was developed very quickly and it has been a steep learning curve in regard to the TA experience. While it may have seemed slightly painful at times, we have learnt a lot about ourselves while creating this course and, in many ways, the trajectories of our personal and professional development as course organisers and TAs has mirrored the development of our students.”

Unexpected results

So what was the reaction from the first cohort of students? “As staff, it was very encouraging to realise that some of the models that we had covered on culture shock had helped to normalise students’ anxieties around starting university and that it had provided a common language and framework for them to understand this period of transition and then check in on their peers to see how they were also coping,” says Sophie.

“This level of peer-to-peer support was a slightly unexpected but very welcome by-product of the course, and it has helped to strengthen the students’ sense of community during their first year.”

Ultimately it’s the wave of positive responses that has been a particular highlight for all involved. Sophie explains more: “The overarching ambition of this course was to encourage students to start thinking about the person and the student that they wanted to be, and to then provide them with the necessary tools, theories, and environment to pursue that change.

“What we have particularly loved hearing is that the course has allowed our students to better understand themselves and to recognise both their strengths and areas of improvement, thereby sowing the seeds for their future personal and professional development as a UEBS student.”

Photography was taken before the pandemic.

Images: Paul Dodds