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Wellness days may return for future semesters

Wellness Days were implemented during the spring 2021 school year in place of spring break.
Wellness Days were implemented during the spring 2021 school year in place of spring break.

Miami University seniors and staff may remember having five “wellness days” — days without classes — sprinkled throughout the spring 2021 semester in place of a spring break. Or, given the craziness and collective exhaustion of the pandemic, they may not. 

Either way, Miami’s Mental Health Task Force (MHTF) is determining whether these wellness days should make a comeback.

The MHTF spent the 2022-2023 year reviewing the campus culture and resources related to student and staff mental health and well-being. After its review, it made 56 recommendations to “create a holistic wellness environment at Miami,” the MHTF website reads.

One of these recommendations is to organize a working group to “examine the practicalities and implications of instituting ‘wellness days’ during the academic calendar,” according to the report. This group will be tasked with generating “a recommendation and clear rationale for why wellness days should or should not be implemented at Miami.”

The MHTF said many students it spoke to “expressed a desire and expectation for more academic flexibility,” including taking mental health days without penalty and rescheduling assignments or exams. Students also requested wellness days “be built into the academic calendar to provide brief and deliberate pauses during the semester.”

Patrick Murphy, a senior sports leadership and management major, said taking mental health days for himself has helped him in the past, so having them built in would allow him to gain the benefits without missing out on instruction.

“There's been a couple of times where I’ve been very stressed and some days I just have to take, you know, that eight hours or something to just relax, calm down, maybe read a book,” Murphy said. “And then I'd be going back to class the next day more sharp and focused.”

While inspired by those allocated in 2021, a new vision of wellness days would be addressing a different problem from their antecedents. Steve Large, assistant vice president for health and wellness, said the 2021 wellness days were meant to be a temporary solution to preventing a post-spring break surge COVID-19 cases.

Large is chairing the committee tasked with implementing the 56 recommendations laid out by the task force. He said they began meeting in September and haven’t gotten to the wellness day recommendation yet.

Large said the biggest challenge in re-implementing wellness days are the restrictions imposed on Miami as a public university — it’s required to have a certain number of instruction hours.

“It’s largely a math equation of trying to figure out how to use the time allotted to get the amount of instruction hours,” Large said. “So to have a spring break and four to five wellness days, that’s just not mathematically possible.”

To build in wellness days, Large said the university would have to rethink other breaks like J-term and spring break.

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“If it is that important and students really want it, then something’s got to give,” Large said. “That’s where the committee can make some recommendations about what else could give in order to make that happen.”

Jeffrey Hunger, an assistant professor of social psychology at Miami, said he enjoyed the wellness days in 2021. 

“It was super important to get folks to feel like they had those resources available and they can reflect on them and leverage them,” Hunger said. “I think that the mandated days, as much as we don't want things to be mandated for us, were like little checkpoints where you got to sit there and be like, ‘Well, how am I feeling right now?’”

Murphy also noticed the benefits of wellness days beyond having a day to relax and catch up on work — they’re also an opportunity to reflect and make changes.

Hunger said that, since he taught classes on mental health, he got to incorporate wellness days into his syllabus, having his students use their extra time to journal and reflect on their mental health successes and challenges.

“I got to think about them in a way that was sort of intimately involved in my class, my pedagogy,” Hunger said. “And so I found them to be refreshing because I do think that we as a field, as a [higher education] system, don't necessarily consider things like mental health, as much as we should.”

Others thought the sporadic nature of wellness days added confusion to a semester already filled with keeping track of which days were in-person, virtual or asynchronous.

“There was a lot of like, ‘What do you mean I'm having Monday off now? No, now I get Tuesday.’ I had to keep reminding students about those things,” said Kesley Ellis, visiting teaching professor of anthropology. “I think that was maybe a little more chaotic than helpful.”

However, as a non-tenured professor, Ellis teaches every day of the week. She said wellness days could potentially prevent burnout for students and faculty with busy schedules, and that having a day off here and there can help break up busy parts of the semester and give students time to address their stressors.

“That stress that we start feeling becomes very cyclical; it feeds into itself,” Ellis said. “You get too stressed about a certain class and then that trickles into your other classes and then you start getting stressed about those classes. If you have study days or something built in, you could catch up on all your sleep or you do the homework that's really been pressing on you. I would not be opposed.”

Whether or not wellness days are built into the academic calendar, Hunger said the university should have more privacy for when students elect to miss class. He compared it to telling your HR department that you need a day off if you recognize that there won’t be a benefit to being there.

Hunger said students tend to be hesitant in talking about mental health or asking for extensions or accommodations from faculty. He encourages students to reach out if they feel overwhelmed or stressed by a class.

“I want folks to realize that we (faculty) are thinking about these things 100% when it comes to how we design classes, how we design assignments, all these different things. We’re here to be flexible. The last thing I want is the student to fail my class. I want everyone to succeed. I want everyone to thrive in my classes.”