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Wellness Days: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By James M. Heffernan, Contributing Opinion Writer
James M. Heffernan ’24’s column appears on alternate Thursdays.

So far, my experience with “wellness days” has been mixed. To any Harvard student who isn’t aware of wellness days, before I fill you in, I should preface my explanation by saying that I admire your ability to ignore your emails. Oh, and I apologize for when your classmates and professors randomly failed to attend classes.

“Wellness days'' are Harvard’s pandemic-era reinvention of what was formerly spring break. Rather than a week-long vacation from college, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ split these five days of break and spread them across the spring semester, fortnightly, on rotating weekdays.

As a freshman from New Zealand, I’ve never had an American spring break before, so my expectations of somehow ending up in Miami and fighting a crocodile were already beyond any wellness day’s reach. Nonetheless, my experience with wellness days was off to a good start. Two of my classes have lectures on Mondays, so between Presidents Day and wellness days, my schedule had two weeks in a three-week period with half my usual number of classes. Compared to the large workload reduction of a spring break, concentrated in a week, it initially seemed that a smaller reduction to my workload spread across wellness days would be more useful.

When it came to promoting mental wellbeing in the long run and avoiding burnout, wellness days had the upper hand on spring break.

Yet when March 16 arrived, my wellness day differed greatly from the bliss of March 1. With midterms approaching, unwritten essays called and required readings watched me from their minimized window with a judgemental glare. However, the strangest thing occurred next: absolutely nothing. In that 24 hour period, my greatest contribution to my education was putting the charger into my laptop for classes the next day.

There were various ways I could have used that day productively, and instead, I found myself using it the exact way it was intended to be used: to take a break from work. But the guilt and stress of having achieved nothing that fateful Tuesday did anything but bolster my mental health. So was the problem with “wellness days,” or was the problem me, in my inability to let this day pass by guiltlessly?

My experience on March 16 was a bleak contrast to March 1: the main difference seeming to be that the March 1 wellness day was on a Monday, distant from end-of-week deadlines, camouflaging themselves into the weekend, whereas March 16 was just a bit closer to those weekly deadlines, and victim to the increased workload of the mid-semester. What had been so pleasurable two weeks before became a day of relentless guilt.

FAS’s attitude towards wellness days seems to be that they assume detractors “roll their eyes” at them. But the issue is not that the wellness days, speckled throughout the semester and popping up often unexpectedly, have a negligible effect, but that the concept of wellness days as it currently stands is counter-productive to wellness. You’re encouraged to spend time away from your work, and if you “successfully” manage to do so, the consequence is a day subtracted from the time between now and your next deadline.

With this time of year being a minefield of deadlines, I can’t imagine anyone who spends their wellness day without working wouldn’t share this guilt, and potentially experience an increase in stress and anxiety afterward.

With the upcoming wellness days on March 31 and April 15, the student body is heading to Armageddon. As Friday deadlines linger on the horizon like a greedy, chocolate-smeared child waiting to steal your candy as you exit the candy store, attempting to use these breaks, Wednesday and Thursday respectively, as actual breaks, is futile. Approaching these Wellness Days with the mentality of ignoring work is bound to result in guilt and stress.

At the same time, if people take the opposite approach and these days become dedicated to work in order to avoid stress and guilt, another concern arises: Using a day promoted as restful to work risks suggests that doing work is an example of self-care when in reality, time dedicated to wellness excludes time spent working.

Fundamentally, “wellness” should not be a matter of simply trying to mitigate future feelings of stress and guilt.

I greatly appreciated Dean of Students Katherine G. O'Dair’s email where she emphasized the importance of using this day in the way that you personally feel is most beneficial for your well-being and that, for some people, this might mean catching up on work. This was a refreshing difference from the impossible suggestion that we should spend wellness days without working. But although this statement was needed, it also illustrated that these days are not actual breaks, because doing no work, which a break inherently involves, is at the cost of future feelings of stress and guilt.

Under no circumstances should staff and students go the whole semester without any breaks.

But because it may be more beneficial for your mental health to use these days productively rather than to abstain from working, this consequence of wellness days is exactly that. Looking ahead to the fall semester, I encourage the FAS to reconsider what wellness means and what’s the best way of engendering it. If they take a similar approach, it should be their priority to create a culture around break days that is supportive and conducive to abstaining from work.

James M. Heffernan ’24’s column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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