‘Leisure sickness’ – why you get ill when you stop work (and how not to)

Warming feet by the fireIt must be Murphy’s Law. You soldier through the cold, dark months of winter, working your fingers into stumps trying to get everything finished before the holidays and then… the day after you down tools, you’re struck down with a cold. Of all the luck – another Christmas Day wrapped up in bed with a thermometer in your mouth!

A sickly yuletide is a situation that no one wants to face; but no doubt many of you will. Symptoms of headaches, muscle aches, fatigue and a bunged up nose are usually more common at the weekends and during holidays. And while it’s all too easy to assume that our suffering is due to bad luck or seasonal bugs, it may be neither; for up to 3% of us experience this phenomenon of getting unwell when work stops. It’s called ‘leisure sickness’ and there are many causes.

Why you get unwell on a holiday or vacation

The pressures of a hectic lifestyle cause many changes within the body. Stress triggers the body to produce surges of ‘stress hormones’ such as adrenaline. These hormones are good for firing you up, giving you an extra boost of energy, and helping you to focus on the task at hand. It is part of your body’s emergency survival mechanisms and it also gives the immune system a pick-me-up. Adrenaline is powerful and even helps to numb aches and pains. Unfortunately this kind of life is not sustainable forever.

A bit like a hangover after a heavy night, the calm felt during a much needed break can feel awful. The moment you take the brakes off, the adrenaline eases off, and with it all those aches that you had so bravely ignored are suddenly felt; the sniffle bubbles up into a fully-fledged infection, while the caffeine withdrawals turn you into a grumpy beast. It can almost feel as though it would be better not to stop – but don’t think for a moment that it is.

A high-stress job – especially when your employment is under threat – can lead to heart disease, digestive problems, and weight gain. Furthermore, refusing to take a break can ultimately lead to ‘burn out’ – when depression, fatigue, hopelessness and poor concentration prevent you from functioning altogether.

Be especially aware if your workplace is undergoing a round of ‘restructuring’ (a euphemism for laying off lots of people). If this is you then take extra care of yourself. Research shows that job insecurity is far worse for your mind than being either employed or unemployed – living with the uncertainty every day is not something we are designed for.

The best way to keep yourself from falling apart come Christmas is to consider what you do now. Reducing excess stress at work is a must, as is making sure that you get plenty of good sleep before the holiday. Stopping work suddenly is usually unwise, so start getting in the festive mood right now. In fact, it might even be worth starting to wind down early – and then you can let the real celebrations begin!

Thanks for reading – all opinions expressed are my own. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

Image source: Photo Credit: Louis Kreusel via Compfight cc

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