For the first time this fall, a majority of Ontario universities have scheduled a break from classes in either October or November. Students have been pushing for this over the past few years as a way to improve mental health and several schools, from Ryerson to Western, have given in. The idea is that a fall break will help students cope with the high workload of university, leaving them less likely to get stressed, depressed or anxious.
A break may indeed temporarily lift spirits and improve mental health but further diminishing the amount of time they’re expected to show up may also make it harder for them to cope in the long run—especially if they get full-time jobs where they’re expected to show up five days a week.
Showing up to the same place at the same time each day is a skill and it’s one that universities aren’t taking seriously enough if they think they can drop even more days from their schedules.
University is already one of the few parts of life when we aren’t expected to show up to the same place at the same time most days. In high school, students get up and go to class every morning, usually by 9 a.m., for at least 194 days per year. If they work full-time hours all summer, they’re showing up for 40 more days. That’s a total commitment of 236 “showing up days” annually.
With university, the 9 to 5 workday habit starts to fade. A typical second-year student will have classes spread over three days. Those with fall reading breaks have as little as 24 weeks of classes. Add in exams and the typical student need only drag herself to campus for 80 days per year. Add 60 at a summer job and she’s reporting for duty just 140 out of 365 days.
That means students are in for a shock if they get a full-time job after graduation where they must show up 240 days a year (assuming two weeks vacation plus holidays). They suddenly have 90 fewer days when hitting the snooze button is an option. That’s the type of reality check that can derail mental health. (Try asking any boss for a fall break to combat stress and see what happens.)
It’s true that students are expected to write essays and study during those 90 days when they aren’t working or in classes but the truth is that many don’t. A study by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found U.S. students spend an average 27 hours per week on classes and homework, which means that, unless they’re volunteering or working for pay, their average work week is three days long.
Ask students to name their biggest problem and many will say procrastination, a vice that leads to feeling worthless, which leads to the very mental health problems we want to prevent. Allowing a few more days each fall when students can sleep in and play PlayStation isn’t going to help that either.