Working through illness may do more harm than good

With schedules filling up, student organizations kicking into high gear and midterm exams rapidly approaching, UM students have a lot on their plates. Yet when illness strikes, many students often attempt to power through it, which can compromise productivity, according to experts, who stress that rest is just as important as work.

When it comes to physical illness, Adam Troy from the University of Miami Student Health Center said students may decide to ignore medical advice due to the priority of following through on other commitments, even if it is the less healthy option.

“The symptoms of a cold tend to be milder and persons can ‘power through,’” he said.

However, for the flu, Troy said the CDC recommends staying home for at least 24 hours after a fever is gone, except to get medical attention or seek necessities.

This leads to presenteeism, the concept of reduced productivity as a result of working while sick. Presenteeism can be caused by a wide variety of causes, both physical – such as migraines, allergies and colds – and mental – anxiety, depression and insomnia, among others. Absenteeism, on the other hand, is staying home due to illness.

Although there is not a lot of U.S.-based research on the topic, a study by Statistics Canada shows that the amount of lost productivity due to presenteeism is 7.5 times greater than the lost productivity due to absenteeism.

Dr. René Monteagudo, director of the Counseling Center, explained the benefits of taking a break when feeling under the weather, and how going to class while sick may lead to the infection of others.

“I think that the American culture is geared toward work, work, work at the sacrifice of you,” Monteagudo said. “If you’re not feeling well, if you have the flu or are sick, we don’t want other students to get sick and we want you to be home.”

However, some students said they hesitate to follow that advice with the pressures of schoolwork. Victoria Brzyzenski, a freshman from Fairfax, Virginia, said she formed the habit of presenteeism early on in high school.

“I was that kind of person who would always be too scared of falling behind. I honestly never skipped school no matter how sick I was,” she said.

Micaela Stoner, a freshman from St. Louis, Missouri, said she fought through illness because going to class would be easier than catching up on missed work after-the-fact.

“I think it is easier to go and get the knowledge from the class than to try and catch up after,” Stoner said. “If you physically cannot go and focus, then stay back. But, it is so difficult to miss class, so I think you should try and go if you can.”

These patterns were echoed in a 2009 study conducted by the American Psychological Association which found that 44 percent of children ages eight to 17 said doing well in school and managing school pressures was a source of stress.

The Counseling Outreach Peer Education Organization (COPE) at UM facilitates the connection between the student body and the Counseling Center, helping educate students to give attention for mental health.

Emily McCready, a member of COPE, defined mental health as a person’s overall wellbeing and said students should be aware of their minds as well as their bodies.

“Mental health is just as important as physical health,” she said.

When it comes to mental health, if school related stress builds to a point where it impacts a student’s day-to-day activities, Monteagudo recommended stopping by the Counseling Center.

“If you are able to go through your day, go to your classes, hang out with your friends, work out, study – even if you’re feeling somewhat down – and you can still accomplish these things and it is not interrupting your daily activity, then we’re kind of generally doing OK,” he said.

He said  a good way to monitor mental health is to ask, “Is it stopping you from getting up? Are you so anxious that you can’t study? Are you feeling so depressed that you can’t get to your class?”

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, he said, “we need to assure that we can do something to get you back into the place where you can go back to your daily activities and not feel like it is emotionally painful to get through the day.”

Sometimes the solution is taking a “mental health day.” These days are about taking a time off from school or work to de-stress and recharge.

“There is no shame in taking a day for yourself, McCready said. “If you are not in a good place and cannot function, then what is the point of not taking advantage of a mental health day?”

For World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10, McCready and other members of COPE tabled in the University Center Breezeway with the Sociology and Criminology Club. Members passed out “anti-stress” kits for Mental Health Awareness Day that had pieces of candy, a pass to a free yoga class on campus, a page for coloring and a piece of bubble wrap to pop.

Freshman Gabby Rosenbloom from New York City said taking mental health days helps her when she feels overburdened by work and stressed in the day-to-day rush.

“I have a lot of anxiety, so sometimes if I am feeling really overwhelmed, I need to just take a day,” she said.

She said she has not taken a mental health day in her time at the University of Miami, but she thinks she might one day. By learning to care for her mental health in high school, Rosenbloom was able to find an arrangement that works for her.

“I would normally take one on Friday so I would have a three-day weekend. Then, I would go to school on Monday caught up with my work and feeling refreshed,” Rosenbloom said.

Monteagudo said it is important to note that mental health days are not just about sleeping, like some students may believe.

“Plan your day. If you need to catch up on sleep, OK. But, it is more than just sleeping in,” he said. “It is about taking care of yourself and your whole self. You could think about the things you’ve wanted to do and maybe you should do them.”

He acknowledged the stigma associated with taking a mental health day, but stressed the importance of each person identifying what feeling well and not feeling well means to him or her, and to take measures if he or she is not feeling well.

Rosenbloom said she had experienced some friction from her parents, who would sometimes take her to school when despite her request to take a day off.

“Both of my parents also have anxiety, so they were very sympathetic and understanding. There were also days where I would say I need one and they would say ‘no’ and tell me to go to school,” she said. “But, if it were clear that I was overextending myself and had a lot going on, obviously they were sympathetic. The term ‘mental health day’ is tossed around a lot in my house and is considered common knowledge.”

The Counseling Center is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Tuesday and Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. The center is located at 1204 Dickinson Drive.

The number for the office is 305-284-5511. The Counseling Center has an After Hours Line: call the office number and press 1 to be immediately connected to a licensed therapist.

The Student Health Center is open Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Appointments can be made at The Health Center also accepts walk-in appointments. Those in need of after-hours assistance can call 305-284-9100.