75% Reduction in Burnout Risk

Prodeko, a student & alumni guild at Aalto University, reduced burnout risk from highest in the country to below national average

Prodeko is the guild of Industrial Engineering and Management at Aalto University in Finland, known for its “type-A” student population. Through targeted interventions both at the individual as well as the community level, it decreased exhaustion and burnout risk from 30% to about 7-8% – without compromising high performance.
Starting point

A driven student population with 30% burnout and exhaustion risk

Prodeko is the guild of Industrial Engineering and Management at Aalto University in Finland. Its prominent alumni members – including Ilkka Paananen of Supercell and Risto Siilasmaa of F-Secure and Nokia – and its relatively small annual intake has made it one of the most difficult university programs to enter in Finland. Subsequently, it has attracted a student population of highly driven individuals, gifted in maths and physics, and with an inclination for business. The culture has always been one of high-achievement, with a tendency towards internal competition and comparison. Tellingly, one alumni described Prodeko as a “litter of alpha lion cubs”.

In 2013 the downside to this culture was made very concrete: in the national AllWell survey of students across Finland, the burnout risk of Prodeko students was sky-high. The Prodeko burnout and exhaustion risk was 30% – double the about 15% of other university programmes. The guild and IEM department realised it had to act.

Solution

Wellbeing lectures & mentoring

The programme that was put in place focused on two things: (1) wellbeing lectures and group coaching for first year students, and (2) a community-based shift in culture. The wellbeing lectures for first year students included topics such as holistic wellbeing, self-leadership, and the link between physical & mental wellbeing and high performance. The sessions were facilitated by e.g. Esa Saarinen, and multiple speakers from Hintsa Performance as a pro bono initiative.

The following year these students acted as mentors for the new freshmen, strengthening the support each new cohort of students received. The wellbeing lectures are now in their fifth year, which means that close to all students at Department of Industrial Engineering and Management have gone through the program, creating a clear generational shift to just five years ago.

Solution

Community-based interventions

Further, the competitive culture was identified as a point of improvement – for students and alumni alike. In close cooperation between the student guild, the Alumni Board, the Honorary Advisory Council and the IEM Department, several initiatives were rolled out to strengthen sense of community. The department changed guidelines for first year IEM courses to provide slightly more breathing space for students. The Alumni and students organised an annual seminar around topics like entrepreneurialism and value-based business.

A stronger community was forged by collectively defining Prodeko’s five values: Think Big, Get Things Done, Learn & Grow, Give Back, and Be a Good Person. The Prodeko brand as a whole was also slightly shifted: from being associated with students, Prodeko is now talked about as a “life-long club you join – first as a student, then as an alumni”.

"The wellbeing lectures had a surprising side effect: they enabled a culture where people dared to be vulnerable. People can now talk about things that are less happy, like weaknesses, mental ill health, failure, and feeling tired."

— Niko Kinnunen, Chairman of Prodeko Student Board in 2019
Results

Cultural change & burnout risk down by 75%

The impact of the initiatives has been significant. The students are no less high performing, but the atmosphere has shifted from being competitive and borderline arrogant, to being supportive and healthy. Topics few Prodeko students of earlier generations would not have dared mention, like vulnerability, the need to sleep, or mental unhealth, have now become normal.

The quantified results have also been notable: from a high of 30% burnout and exhaustion risk, last year’s burnout risk was around 7-8% – clearly below the Aalto University benchmark of ~15%. Other student guilds in Aalto University and beyond are now turning to Prodeko to ask: “How did you do it?” These early interventions will hopefully raise a generation of professionals who know, from own experience, that high performance does not need to happen at the expense of wellbeing.

Burnout risk down by 75% to below national average

"I was positively surprised at the students' propensity to share deeply personal issues - the workshops clearly brought that out. Over the years the students and alumni have also grown closer, and I dare argue Prodeko is now one of the strongest student-alumni communities in Finland."

— Juha Äkräs, Prodeko Alumni & member of Honorary Advisory Council, Executive Chairman of Hintsa Performance

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