Madi Ivan-Feldcamp

Break week came and went in the blink of an eye, as it always had. I did some reading, but I mostly took the opportunity to get some rest and pick up extra hours at work. I hardly felt rejuvenated afterwards. “Break-week burnout” was something I noticed within myself.

According to an article published by the Canadian Journal of Higher Education in 2018, the fall break week was initially adopted by McMaster University in 2015, in response to several student suicides. The goal was to “provide students with a meaningful reprieve during a strategic moment in the course of their studies to improve academic performance and mental health and well-being.”

In other words, the point of the break week, also known as the reading week, is to catch up on all the work students may have procrastinated on or been overloaded with.

In my experience, it isn’t a guaranteed stress-reliever.

The same article mentions a national survey performed by the American College Health Association on the health of post-secondary students. Ninety per cent of Canadian post-secondary students said they felt overwhelmed and 13 per cent had suicidal thoughts within the last 12 months, despite universities across Canada implementing the fall break to combat these pressing issues.

There’s no doubt that feeling stressed and overwhelmed is consistent for most students, regardless of a break week. Many students use the reading week as a literal break, and although this is fine, it tends to be quite jarring once they return on Monday and get back to work.

“The break week isn’t a break – it’s a study week,” says Ahmed Elbadri, Algonquin College Student Success Specialist. “Students treat it like it a break, and they are less motivated to work during that week. When they return, they’re trying to compensate for what they’ve procrastinated.”

Although the break week – or, study week, as it should be addressed – is helpful in providing this time to catch up, it doesn’t amend the problem with stress and feelings of burnout among students.

If a student uses the break week to study and do their work, then the stress might be less when they return; the momentum from before the study week continues on and propels them back into classes again. But the burnout lingers because it feels like a missed opportunity to relax, especially if students chose to work.

If a student doesn’t use the study week to their advantage, it can have detrimental results.

“The break week is a make it or break it week for some,” Elbadri explains. “Will the student succeed?”

Sometimes, students drop out after the break. Maybe the workload becomes too much, and the guilt, shame and mental struggle of falling behind starts to catch up. Once there’s a break, everything stops and the relief of a week of silence is embraced. Then, on the following Monday, the noise starts again, and it sucks. I felt that way when I failed out of two first semesters of college a few years ago.

“Students feel like they’ve already lost, but that’s not true,” Elbadri says. “The discomfort goes away once you reach out. It is a huge relief. When professors and staff reach out to you, it’s not because they have to. It’s because they care. We want students to succeed.”

It isn’t easy to combat negative feelings while getting an education, but as students, it’s our responsibility to allocate time to properly address our schoolwork, while maintaining some semblance of mental health. If students decide to treat the study week like a break, then they must face the music on Monday, and the stress of those procrastinated assignments starts to bubble up all over again.

“A moment in my life made me confront a lot of things,” Elbadri says, “People hit rock bottom for things to click in their mind, and not everyone knows how to be self-sufficient.”

This lack of self-sufficiency seems to be the root of all evil. Speaking from experience, I had to learn how to keep an agenda and manage my time – this is still something that I’m actively working on, and something I highly recommend adopting.

Elbadri says the key to addressing workload issues is following the SMART acronym: Goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-related. Write these thoughts down so you can see them.

The purpose of a study week is to help students reduce stress, by allowing them time without classes and new assignments so they can read, think and catch up on their school work. Let’s not think of it as a break week, or a “make it or break it” week. Let’s consider it a “meaningful reprieve” to address all concerns, from assignments to mental health.