Cultivating wellbeing and balance in our future business leaders
In higher education, the term “readiness” has traditionally been associated with attaining an appropriate level of skill within a certain discipline. As a corporate buzz word, readiness is now a euphemism for “making it in the real world” which, as the research shows, can mean everything from technical proficiency to cultural competency to communicating well with your colleagues.
At Bentley University, our interpretation of readiness has increasingly leaned toward the development of our students’ wellness and well-being. As a business school, our thinking is formed by the proven correlation of well-being to employee engagement, the types of strengths employers are seeking, and what “success” means to our students and alumni.
According to an Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) study, which surveyed over 400 private and non-profit organizations, fewer than three in 10 think that recent college graduates are proficient in applying knowledge and skills in real-world settings or areas such as critical thinking and communication. Another recent study by PayScale found that skills such as communication, leadership, ownership, and teamwork were lacking in newly graduated job seekers.
Today’s organizations are less hierarchical and more reliant on teams. Collaboration and joint problem solving are valued competencies. Other evidence suggests that these “softer skills,” including empathy for people of different backgrounds and ties to your community, are also what make graduates more productive workers.
The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index, which surveyed more than 30,000 U.S. college graduates, found that those who were emotionally supported during college, and who had experiential and deep learning, were more likely to report higher levels of long-term well-being.
A college program that is designed to give students the proper level of support and learning leads graduates to engaging jobs after graduation. Gallup’s research over 30 years has found that those with high levels of engagement at work after college — meaning they are intellectually and emotionally connected with their organizations and work teams — will in turn report high levels of well-being, putting them on track for a rewarding career and life.
Gallup gauges well-being through five key elements: a sense of purpose, social connections, community engagement, financial security, and physical health. Bentley commissioned a Gallup study of our alumni the same year the Gallup-Purdue Index was released, giving us tremendous insight into how our alumni faired among these dimensions against the national average.
The results were exciting: Bentley alumni averaged 5.4 percentage points above the national average on each of the five well-being elements, and the number of Bentley graduates thriving in all five elements was 44 percent higher than the national average. Through the survey, we were able to identify the factors that played into those numbers from an undergraduate perspective: Those with higher levels of well-being reported having faculty members who showed a level of concern for them, a mentor who encouraged their aspirations, internships that connected them with their strengths, and leadership positions on campus.
With this as the baseline, Bentley conducted our own survey with current students and dug deeper into the notion of well-being. One of the factors we studied was hope. We asked: Are you hopeful about what will happen in the future? The other was strength in self-efficacy: Do you know your strengths and are you relying on those rather than overcompensating for what you don’t do well?
Of all of these factors, we learned that co-curricular activities were key drivers for engagement and well-being. For example, students who reported attending more than five athletic events a semester were more likely to report high levels of well-being than those who did not (80 percent vs. 55 percent). Students who were Resident Assistants or pursued service learning also drove up higher levels of engagement and well-being.
Armed with this information, we asked ourselves, “If these factors are so important for so many reasons, how do we make engagement and well-being an institutional priority?”
In some ways, Bentley is the ideal beta site for this work. As a medium-sized residential school of business students, our students are a self-selecting, homogenous cohort. We are proud of our history of having graduates who “hit the ground running,” but as an institution driven by equal parts data and instinct, we needed to explore that dynamic and understand how to make it even better.
Our effort started in Student Affairs which, at Bentley, has always had a prominent seat at the president’s table. All of these leaders, whether in residential life, athletics, the health center, or the work-study program, had a student-centered mindset. At the same time, we believed working with them to create more intentional opportunities to interact with students would establish an even higher expectation among students that there are many people here who care about them.
Operationally, Bentley is creating a model to ensure that all programs are designed to impact a student’s well-being and engagement. This includes examining how our programs help students understand and use their strengths. We created a self-assessment tool for current and future programs that helps determine if what we are offering includes best practice opportunities like mentorships, self-efficacy and reflection. We conducted a gap analysis to understand where we fall short and we are using that information to identify opportunities for improvement.
Our approach to this work includes some important assumptions. We want students to be thinking about their own wellness and to help them understand well-being with a much broader perspective. Following Gallup’s premise that it is not where you go to college but how you go to college, we worked with student leaders to create a marketing program that helps all students develop their own road maps to well-being and engagement. We divided our programs into three areas: leadership opportunities, co-curricular programs, and counseling/advising programs. Soon, we will be able to map out exactly how an individual can follow his or her own personal journey to well-being through four years of college.
Like all highly competitive schools, we must examine our culture and how that plays into the wellness and well-being of our students. Ours is an environment focused on success, with career path training that begins freshman year and highly motivated students that tend to over-extend. Instead of accepting — or even tacitly rewarding — this intensity, we should be encouraging balance and rest. For students who tend to stand apart, we should find pathways for positive relationships. For those who “sign up for everything,” we should encourage them to pursue only those activities that are beneficial and authentic, and not just resume-worthy.
Students of color and first-generation students have both similar and unique wellness issues. We want to do much better in supporting these students specifically, both in terms of improving diversity in our community, and in making diversity education an experiential learning opportunity.
We view women’s confidence as a specific health and wellness issue as well and are looking at student engagement and well-being through a gender lens. Our Center for Women and Business offers programs designed to empower women to lead by giving them the skills and the knowledge to be more successful and satisfied in their careers. It addresses what research continues to show as a “confidence gap” between men and women, a phenomenon that is evident as women enter the workforce and persists as they reach mid-career.
In each of these categories, we look forward to measuring our progress and identifying the gaps, though not everything can be quantified. We will consider this effort a success if we continue to give our students the skillset, as well as the mindset, to be passionate about what they do and how they’re engaged in the world around them.
Gloria Cordes Larson, Esq., is the President of Bentley University. A prominent lawyer, public policy expert, and business leader, Larson was elected to the presidency in 2007 and is the first woman to serve in this post.