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Interview with Dr. Vicky Dierckx


Course Description: Mental Health, Well-being and Professional Success

In a society that is overly stressed, future professionals need tools to improve their work-life balance, deal better with stressors, and invest in their personal and professional well-being. This course aims to offer exactly that. The science of well-being will be approached from a multi-disciplinary perspective dealing with topics such as resilience, stress management strategies, the relationship between money and well-being, material and experiential consumption, goal pursuit, workplace well-being strategies, happier societies and much more. Studying these topics, students will develop their own plans for a life well lived and having a career without regrets.       

What draws you to the subject matter of mental health and well-being

When I was studying psychology, the focus was mainly on what is going wrong with people and how to “fix” this. We tried to figure out what people’s weaknesses were and how to remediate them. We tried to take away their anxieties and their negative emotions and if that worked, we had done our job. But mental health is much more than the absence of mental illness. Doing ok-ish is not the same as flourishing. This is where positive psychology started to make a difference. The focus became on what one needs in order to thrive and to feel that one’s live is worth living. The question is what is going right with people and what their strengths are, because that is where their biggest room for growth is.

Looking at mental health and well-being through this completely different lens is so empowering. Even when someone is struggling with anxiety or depression, that person is much more than “anxious” or “depressed”. It might be a person who is brave, perseverant, kind, creative and … has more negative emotions than other people. So what? That is only one part of someone. One is much more than a label.

The field of positive psychology has given us lots of insights into well-being and how to improve it in a sustainable way. There is so much that one can do to increase one’s own well-being and the well-being of the people around oneself. People who are thriving are not only mentally and physically healthier, they are also professionally more successful. I cannot wait to talk to students about all the opportunities waiting for them when they start working on their well-being!

What goes into a course on mental health and well-being? What type of student is the course aimed at (regarding major and interests)

An academic course on mental health and well-being is not a self-help class. The course is based on scientific research in (Positive) Psychology, Consumer Research, Behavioral Economics, Neuroscience and Sociology. This multidisciplinary approach is needed to gain a thorough understanding of the science of well-being. We will also consider well-being at three different levels: the individual level, the level of the workplace and the policy level.

At the individual level, students will learn about well-being interventions that will help them thrive in their personal and their professional life. We will explore the relationship between money and well-being, materialism and conspicuous consumption, work-life balance, stress management techniques etc. Since one cannot improve one’s well-being by only studying it, a lot of participation will be required from the students as well. They must be willing to apply the well-being strategies discussed in their own lives and share their experiences. 

More and more companies are becoming aware of the importance of investing in the well-being of their employees. Satisfied employees not only perform better but have better interpersonal relationships at work, have a better work-life balance and hence a lower change of getting a burn-out compared to unsatisfied employees. Having “happy employees” also reflects itself in a higher customer satisfaction and a better employer brand. Hence, at the workplace level, students will learn about the benefits and obstacles of a good workplace well-being program, partly based on case-studies. Students will also have to design their own plan for their “own” business and “sell” it to their classmates. So, again, it will be a combination of theory and application.

The class will also focus on policy implications of well-being. Governments, national and local, have become more aware of their role in promoting the well-being of their citizens, pushing them to look beyond traditional measures of growth such as GDP. New-Zealand, for instance, has implemented a well-being budget that motivates ministers and agencies to develop initiatives that have an impact on the well-being of its citizens. Also, local governments, especially in the UK, start implementing successful well-being programs. 

To what type of student is the course aimed at? Well, I personally feel that any student who is committed to leading a thriving personal and professional live would benefit from taking this class. But, of course, I might be biased…

How does your course relate to what we are all going through currently? What advice do you have for dealing with the current crisis relating to your expertise?

We are currently going through a health crisis. It is normal that we feel distressed. The coronavirus triggers all four types of stressors. We feel time stressors: we have too little to do or the feeling that time is slipping away, and we cannot get anything done. There are encounter stressors: dealing with family or roommates in quarantine or not being able to see one’s family and friends. Then there is the quarantine itself, as a situational stressor, and anticipatory stressors: worries about the future, about not being able to graduate, about becoming sick, financial repercussions, … There is so much going on in our heads. To deal better with time stressors, we can try to create a new structure in our days. Have a fixed time to get up, to start working, to exercise, … and make “doable” to-do-lists. To make the quarantine more bearable, we can deliberately add activities to our schedule that bring us positive emotions and limit those that bring negative emotions (news and social media!). Ask yourself, which activity brings me joy? Which activity brings me hope, makes me grateful, even now in quarantine? There are plenty of stress management techniques that one can rely upon to deal with encounter and anticipatory stressors. One that is especially beneficial is to practice mindfulness. When your thoughts are going everywhere, use the STOP technique. Stop what you are doing, Take a few deep breaths, Observe what you are feeling, thinking, sensing and label it, and then Proceed. Merely recognizing and labeling your emotion as fear or anger, will take the sharpness away of that emotion. Tell yourself it is normal to feel this way during a crisis and that emotions come and go. Also, accept that you are only human...

Anything else that you would like to add?

I am very passionate about well-being. Teaching people how to thrive has become my personal mission in life and has brought me a lot of meaning and joy as well. I hope to spread some of this to my future students too.