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.