In an attempt to compensate for the lack of a spring break, the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences announced the implementation of five days of break during the spring semester. Classes do not meet synchronously on these “wellness days,” however, asynchronous work seems to persist indefinitely. Students have now completed three out of the five wellness days, yet very few are able to prioritize self-care or mental wellbeing. Why? What actually plays into a wellness day and what does it mean in relation to our current definition of productivity?
Conceptually, this alternative spring break is not a bad idea. In fact, I would applaud the Harvard administration for recognizing and attempting to act on student mental health and wellness. However, in practice, wellness days are not worthwhile. The inefficacy of wellness days stems from two sources: Harvard’s institutional decisions and, importantly, students’ obsessive work culture.
In the name of mental health, Harvard implemented the wellness days, yet did not complement the intervention with the supporting measures needed for students to truly take a day off. Academically, wellness days can be a cause for more harm than good. Having homework due the day after a wellness day makes it inherently difficult for students to completely relax and let go of work. If students attempt to truly take a day off on a wellness day, then double the amount of work compounds for the following day. As Harvard first-year Aarya Kaushik said in an interview with HPR, “I think it is really difficult to take a real pause from schoolwork for just a day, knowing we have to go back to the schedule the next morning.” Additionally, while synchronous classes are not held, some courses provide recorded lessons or asynchronous work in an attempt to stay on schedule with course material. This additional work further destroys any students’ attempt at a “break.” Institutionally, these things can and must be changed by Harvard.
More importantly, though, students must also learn to do their part. The inability of a wellness day to truly be a day of wellness is also due to the fact that many Harvard students don’t know how to relax or unplug. Especially with remote learning, the blurred line between home and work causes us to fall into what Prospect Union research director Andrew Pakes terms an “always-on” work culture. Meetings are now scheduled during what used to be leisure-time, and the option of asynchronous work coerces students to be constantly logged in. Moreover, Harvard students’ definition of productivity is not aligned with the priority of self-care and wellbeing.
Whether we admit it or not, we subconsciously seek the social approval that exists for being busy, having Zoom meetings scheduled all-day and work to do all-night. It feels right to fit the norm of a hard-working and “productive” Harvard student. But at what cost? An entire academic semester with no break, no time for self-care, and no opportunity to be away from work is detrimental, especially when days meant for wellness turn into work days.
For many students, work consists of negative attitudes related to stress, anxiety, and pressure, effectively establishing work as our “everyday enemy,” But why? What makes a culture of “Ugh, I have to do work” more attractive than a culture that promotes “I’m excited, I get to do my work.”? This may seem far-fetched and unrealistic given the inevitable pressures of deadlines and responsibilities. However, this fairly simple change in mindset, even if it’s small, can directly impact behavior. Considering the omnipresence of burnout, there is a glaring need to bring joy and passion to our work if we want to sustain a healthy work ethic in the long-term. Our aversive attitudes antagonize work, putting us in a state of everlasting misery and struggle. When was the last time you did your work happily?
Even just the concept of working joyfully is foreign in theory, and even more detached in practice. But, it is not impossible nor unrealistic. This perceptual shift is proven psychologically. If someone is making you do work, the locus of control is external to you. If you voluntarily get to do your work, you are intrinsically motivated and have autonomy over your experience. The more autotomy you have, the happier you are proven to feel. It is in our hands to foster interest and love into the work we do. Work-life balance is not something we can find, but rather something we must create with intention. So, the sooner we approach our work with an attitude of passion rather than obligation, the sooner we can rid ourselves of the eternal angst of current work culture.
Next, we need to change our definitions of productivity. Academic and extracurricular work is not the only thing that is productive. Working on ourselves, building relationships, and maintaining health and fitness is equally productive. The incomplete nature of our definition of productivity originates from a capitalist mindset. Our current attitude towards productivity stems from the fact that we value what we get or will get paid for. The fact is, we are money-minded, but an economically-motivated attitude alone will not support long-term and holistic wellbeing.
The monetary value or payment that may result from the work we do dictates our definition of that work as worthy or not. Academic and extracurricular work carries the eventual promise of a job which justifies its monetary value. On the other hand, self-care and mental health are not considered productive uses of time because the payoffs are less direct. However, in reality, valuing mental health can indirectly yet significantly contribute to achieving future goals.
As students during a pandemic and in the greater technological era, we must fight for, in the words of Pakes, our “right to disconnect.” We have a right to say no to endless, back-to-back Zoom meetings or to cut ourselves the slack of an extension. We have a right to prioritize our wellbeing, and there is no shame in that. Harvard’s institutional errors in the structure of the wellness days are definitely to blame. Harvard lacks student input, research on mental health, and modeling the practicality of wellness days before implementation. This, without a doubt, contributes to the inefficacy of the wellness days. However, students’ work culture is also to blame. We must begin to value our time and our health, as we are justified in our demands for less screen-time and the need to unplug. First, convince yourself of this — give yourself permission to breathe. Then, convince the people around you until a wellness day can actually be what it is meant to be — for wellness and wellness only.
Image by Benjamin Rascoe is licensed under the Unsplash License.