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Leisure sickness: the joys of getting sick when you relax

(article originally written on 4/9/2017)

THE REVELATION!

This year I have been fortunate enough to do a little travelling.  Not the type that involves backpacks and hostels for months on end, just the typical brief vacation that many find beneficial in their lives.  In April I went to Brazil for a friend’s wedding, and then in August I spent a delightful week in Budapest.

These were my first holidays since I started my training, many years ago.  I had not really had the opportunity to get away.  I immersed myself into the culture, enjoyed the relaxation, and realised what I had been missing all these years.  Until I suddenly noticed, when I landed back in Heathrow after the trip to Brazil my sinuses flared up and I had to make a trip to boots to take immediate aversive action.  I couldn’t stop sneezing and I felt as though I had a cold.  This stopped pretty quickly.  I thought nothing more of it.

That was until my final day in Budapest.  On the 7th day I started to experience flu-like symptoms.  I have had the flu jab so I knew it was not flu.  All sorts of things were running through my mind – maybe I have an allergy to air conditioning!  I do often hear of people getting dry tickly throats from air conditioning (1).  When I arrived home the symptoms persisted and are only starting to ease off now – over a week later.  

I spoke to friends and family about this and noted that some family members, especially those that rarely travel at all, got cold and flu-like symptoms, chest infections, and suchlike following a holiday.

A holiday is supposed to refresh you, isn’t it?

I posted this concern into a group of fellow psychologists and someone piped up with a diagnosis.  You have “Leisure Sickness!”

​I have never heard of this, how on earth can I have that?

SO, WHAT IS LEISURE SICKNESS?

Interestingly (maybe not), the term ‘leisure sickness’ was Webster’s Word of the Year for 2010.  Although technically it is not a word!  

Leisure sickness is where some people report feeling or becoming ill during weekends, or vacations/holidays.  This generally occurs for people classed as ‘workaholics’ according to the dictionary definition, although nobody I know would class me as a workaholic.  

Whilst leisure sickness is a new term to me, it has been floating around for many years now.  Dutch Health Psychologist, Professor Ad Vingerhoets, is probably one of the most prolific researchers in this area and has found that, based on Dutch populations, around 3-4% of the population experience leisure sickness either at weekends or when they go on holidays.  It is something that tends to occur more frequently in males than females too.  It is thought that the challenges arise in the transition from busy workloads to stress-free environments with those experiencing leisure sickness displaying an ‘inability’ to relax (2).  

There are numerous possible explanations for people experiencing leisure sickness.  Some possibilities are as follows (3):

  1. People really dedicated to their work may experience feelings of guilt should they take time off, this can cause stress and thus reduce the immune function.
  2. When people are busy they do not have time to notice symptoms of ill health.  By relaxing their bodily perceptions and awareness increases and therefore they become aware of the symptoms of illness.
  3. People with a high workload run off adrenaline during their busy times (which may be all of the time!).  These people can experience high levels of adrenaline even during the evening hours (hence an inability to relax when not at work).  As some forms of stress can actually improve immune function, surprisingly, when the stress function powered by adrenaline is reduced, illness prevails.
  4. A high workload predicts a potential dehabituation to stress during a holiday. Ultimately, your body gets acclimatised to the stress and when you give it a rest, when you return to work you may experience challenges with insomnia, mood, and symptoms of ill health.  This is not found in people with a low workload.  
  5. It is also thought that some people postpose their illness to a time where they have time to be sick!  Some older studies have found that people who deem themselves irreplaceable at work may potentially be able to delay health problems, and even death.  Although I am less convinced about this as I managed to get tonsillitis whilst writing up my doctoral thesis.
  6. Personality traits/characteristics may play a role.  It is thought that those with perfectionist traits, a high workload, a strong commitment to work, and an overdeveloped sense of responsibility to work are with the high-risk group.  People falling within this group may struggle to switch between work and non-work situations.  Perfectionism is a trait that predicts burnout, exhaustion, and conditions such as chronic fatigue.  

HOW CAN I PREVENT THIS?

My recent travels have taught me a few things.  

  1. I need to allow myself more time to relax.
  2. I need to give myself time each week where I am not working.

I am a self-employed psychologist & coach and as such it is my responsibility to earn a living for myself.  To put a roof over my head.  I have noticed that I am ‘always on’.  All of the books I read are work-related.  When I am attempting to relax, I am thinking about work, strategies, developments, products, etc.  How to create a sustainable business and income.

The key point I was missing was my health.  Pretty ironic for a health psychologist!  If I do not look after my psychological and physical wellbeing then I am unable to work, thus unable to earn.  

My trip to Budapest was based on the insight I had during my trip to Rio – the insight that I need to have more holidays.  I need to have more time away from work.  That was not sufficient though.  I have now booked myself piano lessons to give myself time each week where I am focusing on something totally different.  A sacred space where I am not thinking about work.

So, for me this is still a work in progress, yet my tips to avoid leisure sickness would be:

  1. Ensure you build in some leisure time into every single week, not just the weekends.  Maybe that is enrolling in a night class, starting a hobby, buying a dog so you have a reason to walk in all weathers.  Something that results in you taking time doing something other than thinking about work for 30-60 minutes a few times a week.
  2. Ensure you sleep well.  If not, look into your sleep hygiene.
  3. Have some breaks away, although these will only be beneficial if you have already built in a better work/life balance.
  4. Do some exercise at least a few times a week.  Exercise is a great way to reduce stress, although it does not have to be an expensive gym membership!  It can be walking 10,000 steps a day – this can be extremely beneficial to your health.

If you still struggle then consider engaging in some mindful activities, mindfulness meditations, or if you are really struggling with stress then consider making some time to see a psychologist or a coach.  We can often help you to look at your life from different perspectives so you can make changes to lead a more healthy and prosperous life.

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