Vicky Dierckx
Vicky Dierckx

Thermometer to check for fever. A pulse oximeter to measure blood oxygen levels. Hand sanitizer to prevent infection. Mask to prevent asymptomatic spread. The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed many of us into amateur epidemiologists, no matter our true vocation. But what about our mental health during this stress-filled time? What tools do we have to ensure that our mental well-being is just as fit as our physical well-being? Thankfully, the Department of Marketing has a course for that.

“An academic course on well-being is not a self-help class,” explained Vicky Dierckx, instructor for MKTG 4984 Personal Well Being & Professional Success. “The course is based on scientific research in positive psychology, consumer research, behavioral economics, neuroscience, and sociology.” Dierckx has a Ph.D. in psychological science and a teaching degree. In 2015, she moved with her family from Belgium to Blacksburg.

Dierckx explained that the course will consider well-being at three different levels: the personal level, the level of the workplace, and the policy level. At the personal level, students will learn about well-being interventions that will help them thrive in their personal and professional life. The class 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,” said Dierckx. “They must be willing to apply the well-being strategies discussed in their own lives and share their experiences.”

At the workplace level, students will learn about the benefits and obstacles of a good workplace well-being program, based partly on case-studies.

Students will design their plan for their ‘own’ business and ‘sell’ it to their classmates,” Dierckx explained. “So, again, it will be a combination of theory and application.”

Finally, the class will focus on the policy implications of well-being. Governments, both at the national and local levels, have become more aware of their role in promoting the well-being of their citizens. “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,” Dierckx said. “Local governments, especially in the United Kingdom, have started implementing successful well-being programs.”  

Dierckx explained that the course is deeply rooted in what is known as positive psychology, which is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. “When I first began studying psychology, the focus was mainly on what is going wrong with people and how to ‘fix’ this,” explained Dierckx. “We tried to take away their anxieties and their negative emotions and if that worked, we had done our job.”

She continued, “Mental health is much more than the absence of mental illness. Doing ‘ok-ish’ is not the same as flourishing. This is where the emergence of positive psychology started to make a difference. The focus then became what one needs to thrive and to feel that one’s life is worth living.”

Rajesh Bagchi, department head of Marketing, agrees wholeheartedly. Bagchi notes, “While our courses are designed to teach our students all the skills necessary to be successful marketers, in the real world, to be successful, students need to understand and prioritize their own well-being. Afterall, life is a marathon – making decisions that hurt personal well-being will in the longer term turn out to be costly, and could lead to burn out and to suboptimal outcomes.

He continues, “Professionals who succeed not only know how to handle success, but more importantly, know how to handle failures. Moreover, many of our students will be business leaders of tomorrow and will manage large teams of people. It is therefore important for them to not only learn how to work well with others, but more importantly, create workplace environments that are motivating and rewarding for everyone. This course will teach our students both important work skills as well as life skills, and will help them not only have a successful career but a fulfilling one.”  

Focusing on what produces positive emotions is key to enduring stress-filled times – such as those we are presently experiencing. “We are currently going through a health crisis,” said Dierckx. “It is normal that we feel distressed. There is so much going on in our heads. 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.” And in times like this Bagchi notes “understanding oneself and one’s emotions and learning how to deal with them are critical. These are the exact same skills one will need when dealing with workplace stress.”

Dierckx recommended utilizing a technique 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 and label it, and then Proceed.” She continued, “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.”

Dierckx continued, “I am very passionate about well-being. Teaching people how to thrive has become my 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.”