Opinion | Please, just take a break

By Dalia Maeroff, Staff Columnist

We have all had that one professor that you email on a Friday evening, and doesn’t get back to you until Monday morning. Sure, this can be annoying sometimes, but pause to consider that maybe you should do the same.

I know, it seems outrageous to think that we, as busy college students — with those exams next week and that paper due on Tuesday and that one work thing and that Zoom call with friends — could possibly take the weekend off. Since this pandemic started we are seeing a shift in society that we have never seen before — a shift to an online classroom and workplace. Everything from our school to work to friendships have moved from in person to a screen to prevent the spread of COVID-19. With that shift comes a change in our working habits, and especially our work-life balance.

I know I’m not the only one who has noticed a tipping of our work-life balance toward work instead of life. Days blur together, the homework piles up and we are stressed out. Weekends are no different than weekdays, and our holidays and vacations are nonexistent due to COVID-19. There seems to be nothing better to do than to work, and it provides a great distraction from all of the problems we are facing right now. When the news headlines are stressing us out too much, we can just switch to doing homework — that feels more productive anyway.

The imbalance between our work and our lives is unhealthy in so many ways. We as students and employees need to reclaim our evenings, weekends and breaks. Teachers and employers need to allow for that so they can do the same. Evenings, weekends and extended vacation time, as well as just limiting our work and screen time in general, are essential not only for our mental health, but also for our physical health.

Even before our shift to virtual everything, the negative effects of screen time had been researched at length. Screen time is associated with one of the most central mental health and physical health risks in America today — a sedentary lifestyle. As little as two hours of screen time a day can increase the risk of anxiety, depression, weight gain, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, pulmonary embolism and venous thromboembolism in adults. Along with staring at a screen all day long, a sedentary lifestyle can contribute to less sleep and generally bad eating habits when watching a screen. Chronic neck and back pain can also come from poor posture when using screens, as well as “computer vision syndrome” from staring at a screen for too long.

As this pandemic has taken hold of our lives, our ideas about screen time have changed. Screen time was something many of us tried in the past to limit, but now that seems near impossible. When we need a computer to attend class and meetings, complete homework and to work a job for endless hours every day, after which it becomes a likely source of entertainment, this can lead to a variety of problems.

We are digitally connected now more than ever, a blessing and a curse in this age. All of our work has moved online, allowing us to work from home, but that also means we have to work from home. Suddenly the place that had been a sanctuary from work has become the place of work. Leaving the office no longer means that we’re done with work for the day because we never really leave the office. Data shows that people working from home are likely to clock an additional 60 hours a month in overtime as a result of COVID-19. Owl Labs found that those who work remotely were 43% more likely than on-site workers to clock more than 40 hours a week.

Even though the amount of time spent working is on the rise for most remote workers, there are diminishing returns — stress from work and from the pandemic lead to a decrease in productivity. For many, these new levels of connectivity and hyper-communication are resulting in information overload, constant distraction and burnout. Some signs you’re overworking yourself are fatigue during the day, neck or back pain, feeling depressed and drinking more.

Lots of those signs may seem familiar to students and employees during COVID-19. That means that it’s time to take breaks. Breaks from work and breaks from screens are absolutely essential to maintain both physical and mental health. 

The same signs are present in many studies about working long hours, which is why it’s extremely important to limit your working hours on a day-to-day basis. It has been shown that outside of the aforementioned symptoms, there is also an increased risk of cardiovascular disease that has been linked to working long hours. Working long hours during the day can also affect your sleep, something that during this stressful time — or any time, for that matter — is absolutely essential to keep on a healthy schedule.

Taking longer breaks over the weekends or even three-day weekend breaks is also extremely beneficial. It helps to combat symptoms of declining physical and mental health due to overworking, avoiding burnout and increasing satisfaction. It has even been shown that a three-day weekend break may even be better for your mental health than a longer vacation and can help to renew motivation for short- and long-term goals, as well as improve productivity.

During COVID-19, a weekend break or even a three-day weekend break doesn’t necessarily mean that vacation time is the same as it used to be. Although getting away for the weekend has shown to be extremely beneficial for mental and physical health, that isn’t always possible, nor is it always the safest idea. There are still many things you can do from home to give yourself a much needed break.

Taking that time off will do wonders for that quarantine burnout. Digital detoxes, investing time into doing activities that you love away from screens and scheduling your days based on your priorities as a person, not a worker, can all improve the overall quality of life during COVID-19. Let’s face it, this is the last time you want to distract yourself with work. I can almost guarantee that we’re never going to have this much time to spend time with your family, pick up a book and read or do all the hobbies you forgot you loved.

Dalia Maeroff writes primarily about issues of psychology, education, culture and environmentalism. Write to her at [email protected].