Early one cold Saturday morning on the campus of the University of Lausanne in Lausanne, Switzerland, a group of EMBA students quietly walk in the snow. They take their time, observing the details—and beauty—of the scene.
The students are practicing as part of their elective course on mindfulness and gaining the benefits. Consider this testimonial from one EMBA student: “For me, mindfulness was a major discovery because it literally saved my MBA. By learning how to overcome anxiety and cope with stress better, I could stay in the program.”
Stress often hits EMBA students while they balance demanding careers, their educational commitments, and their home lives. Jeffrey Petty, professor and EMBA academic director at HEC Lausanne | UNIL, noticed the toll it can take on students. At the same time, he knew he had an expert resource to tap in offering EMBA students a powerful tool for stress reduction and leadership development.
Odile Hettler has spent her career in healthcare, receiving both a Doctor of Pharmacy degree and an EMBA. Most recently, she established her own consulting business for clients in the pharmaceutical industry and began lecturing on healthcare innovation for HEC Lausanne. She also has been trained in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical School Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare and Society and earned her master’s degree in medicine, meditation, and neuroscience from the University of Strasbourg.
Petty turned to Hettler to develop a pilot for introducing EMBA students to mindfulness, which launched in 2016. Based on its success, the program debuted an expanded version in 2017 that included an optional eight-hour elective.
“Odile is very scientific in her approach,” says Petty. “She lets people know that this is not just a feel-good session, but it’s backed with research.”
Mindfulness is the awareness that comes from paying purposeful attention in the present without judgment, says Hettler, who adapted the MBSR curriculum as a framework for the program’s mindfulness-based initiative (MBI). Hettler tailored the MBI to meet the needs of very busy and driven EMBA students.
She starts with the obvious—not everyone looks at mindfulness the same way.
“I teach them skepticism is a great quality because skepticism is what pushes us to go further to learn about the world and learn about ourselves,” she says. “Right away, I want them to know skepticism is okay.”
Any skepticism doesn’t seem to last too long. After a two-hour introduction early in the program and two one-hour mini-lectures, students have the option of participating in the eight-hour elective, four mindfulness practice sessions. In its first offering, 70 percent of all EMBA students registered for the elective—most recently, that number jumped to 90 percent. “It resonates,” says Hettler.
In all the sessions, Hettler connects the work to business and wellbeing applications. In particular, mindfulness helps increase self-awareness and focus, two key leadership qualities. “We clearly make the link to business.”
In a session on stress, students highlight the parts of the body where they feel stress. It’s an exercise that helps open students’ eyes: Some drawings are full of dots. In another exercise, students look at a painting altogether and describe what they see.
Throughout the elective sessions, Hettler shares helpful tools, such as STOP. STOP involves making a conscious break in the day—stop, take a few breathes, observe what is happening, and become present.
The MBI has worked so well that Petty is looking at including aspects of it in his entrepreneurship class. In addition to student surveys and anecdotal feedback, Petty and Hettler also mark success with another measure. Students take the Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS), which was developed at Virginia Commonwealth University, three times during the program—before and after the elective and at the end of the program.
“First, the student scores are low,” says Hettler. “And then I see scores improve at the end of the elective and stabilize or slightly improve at the end of EMBA.”