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It might be a stressful experience but studying for a postgrad qualification can make a huge difference to your career. The real question is how to manage that stress effectively

This article was first published in the February 2013 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

You’ve already worked your socks off to get a professional qualification, and wherever you are on your career timeline you have almost certainly felt the current pressures of an unstable economy and periods of low morale in the workplace. One way of putting yourself in the best possible position and ahead of the crowd, whether you are after career stability, promotion or a new job, is to have an MBA. But with work already so highly pressured, how can you best manage yet more stress?

Work-related stress has been a growing issue for years. Last year’s annual absence management survey from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) didn’t make for happy reading. The level of reported mental health problems such as anxiety and depression among employees has doubled since 2009.

Workload is a growing stress-related problem, with 57% of organisations ranking it among the top three most common causes of absence, compared with 48% in 2011. Yet nearly one-third of survey respondents said that their organisation was not actively doing anything to reduce it.
‘Stress is one of the biggest causes of cardiovascular disease and employee absence,’ says Sam Kotadia, psychologist and managing director of MindSport. ‘Employers need to show a duty of care to help employees manage stress. It’s a huge health and safety issue. And stress can impact on other areas. It can be isolating and leave the sufferer feeling as though things are spiralling out of control.’

The demanding workload of an MBA, along with all your other commitments could be a recipe for disaster but not, according to the experts, if you recognise the signs of stress and manage your way through it. And ultimately, the reward will be more than worth it.

Derek Walker, director of careers at Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, says: ‘An MBA is a broad-based business toolkit covering a wide range of business-related disciplines.  While there may be some areas of overlap with subjects studied as part of a professional accounting qualification, the process of studying for an MBA at a good school with a diverse group of classmates exposes the student to a range of business concepts such as strategy, marketing, operations, management and so on, different ways of thinking, and a broad network that they will probably draw on throughout their career.’

ACCA works with the Saïd School and offers the Diploma in Financial Strategy, a master’s-level course that provides the essential elements of an MBA for qualified accountants. The one-year course starts annually in January, with four four-day tuition modules, assessed by a project or exam, and concluding with a 10,000-word business project.

It might seem intimidating, but there are several ways you can manage your stress levels and turn negatives into positives. Kotadia says: ‘Stress can be either debilitative or facilitative. It can push you to develop avoidance techniques.’ This is why it’s so important to have a strategy in place to manage stress and take control from the earliest stage.

Kotadia suggests focusing on the process, not the outcome: ‘Don’t think about passing, or the grade you want to achieve. Instead, get the workload, or revision, into a palatable format. In sports psychology we tell athletes not to focus on winning the match but on keeping on their toes and staying balanced. Once you’re in control of the building blocks, the outcome will take care of itself.

‘One cause of stress is feeling that everything is out of control. Ignore events beyond your own influence and direct your attention towards actions and processes that you have control over. Positive results will follow.’

Most people experience stress when problems seem too large to handle. ‘If you break your problems down into manageable chunks, it will reduce their enormity and allow you to focus on how to tackle them, promoting a problem-solving mindset,’ says Kotadia. ‘Chess grandmasters use this same technique to break down the chess board into bite-size sections, allowing them to plan their overall game-plan.’

Your state of mind is one of the biggest predictors of behaviour. If you are becoming overwhelmed with your studies, shift your focus on to something you enjoy doing beforehand and give yourself a mood boost. Kotadia says: ‘Use the moment you feel stress as a trigger and a precursor to the positive behaviour – the feel-good thing, whether it’s going to the gym, playing sport, listening to music or acting creatively.’

Finally, be realistic with your expectations. ‘Stress is an inevitable part of life,’ says Kotadia. ‘Believing it is possible to live life completely stress-free will only add pressure and make the situation worse. Although you cannot always control the occurrence of stressful events, you can control how you react to them. Focus on your reaction strategies and you will significantly limit the effect of stress.’

Higher hires

MBA hires are on the rise, according to an end-of-year global employer poll by the Graduate Management Admission Council. Some 76% plan to hire recent MBAs in 2013 compared with 69% last year. GMAC president and CEO Dave Wilson said: ‘Employers recognise that employees with graduate business degrees are a wise investment in uncertain times.’

ACCA fast track at oxford

The Oxford Brookes global MBA allows ACCA members studying through distance learning an accelerated entry route with programme completion in as little as 21 months. A fast-track option to study on campus is also now available to ACCA members.

Feeling the strain

Research published last year in the International Journal of Business and Management Tomorrow looked at stress levels of MBA students in a number of business schools in India.

‘The results clearly indicate that students are stressed,’ the report found. Among the common sources of stress it listed were ‘psychological pressure to perform well in examinations’, lower grades than anticipated, family expectations, uncertainty of getting a job, and competition with other students.

Manchester’s cyber chalk face

All the leading business schools have sophisticated support schemes to help MBA students juggling work and home commitments. Manchester Business School has a number of initiatives for its Global MBA including:

  • E-facilitators – high-achieving MBA graduates in senior positions in leading companies such as KPMG, IBM and Unilever. They answer any questions a student on the course may have.
  • 24/7 support – a dedicated portal that offers news, announcements, academic information and online resources at the click of a mouse.
  • The ‘classroom of the future’ – the development of ‘transnational education’ through virtual classrooms, interactive whiteboards, flexible teaching spaces, podcasts and webinars.
  • Careers guidance – Manchester Business School offers a comprehensive careers service specifically for its part-time MBA students.

Beth Holmes, journalist

Last updated: 12 Dec 2014