Leisure sickness is the reason you get sick the moment you stop work

Did your end-of-financial-year roll call (which also coincided with school holidays this year) sound a little like this?

Aldridge: Present. Marr: Absent. Ounsworth: (cough, cough, splutter, splutter) Present. Davidge: Absent. Jay: Present.

What's going on here? It's blatantly obvious just how many people (colleagues, clients, friends) literally splutter across the line to finish the financial year, their shutting-down bodies forcing them to be sick for the ensuing week.

Before the fiduciary calendar ticks over to a fresh beginning, we work like squirrels, beavering away to stockpile as many acorns in our financial treasure chests as we can. Working long days, constantly in sympathetic nervous system, pushing ourselves to just … get … more … acorns …

This same phenomenon (crashing after a major project) happens to many people who work like crazy before taking a vacation, and then spend the first four or five days of their tropical getaway with a runny nose, headache, and general discomfort. Same thing happens to students at end-of-year exam. And after you sell your family home.

Likely candidates are people who are consumed with work.

Professor Ad Vingerhoets

Sick of getting sick

To explain this phenomenon, Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets and his colleagues from Tilburg University in the Netherlands interviewed 1128 men and 765 women from across the country, the results of which led them to coin the phrase 'leisure sickness'.

Professor Vingerhoets explains: "Likely candidates are people who are consumed with work, who have demanding and high-stress positions, and who have trouble making the transition between a work and non-work environment."

Their study showed it wasn't an isolated incident either, with the people who reported 'leisure sickness' commenting they had experienced the pattern for more than 10 years.

Looking through the microscope

To better understand what is happening to our bodies (and potentially our brains), I went to Sydney University to have a conversation with my cycling buddy Dr Tom Buckley , an Associate Professor in the Critical/Acute Care teaching and research team.


"While this is not new science, it is not fully understood by many, probably because the immune system is so complex," he says. "First, psychological stress is associated with mobilisation of our white blood cells. In addition, elevated cortisol also contributes to immune balance, up-regulating some inflammatory cytokines and down-regulating others, resulting in a scenario where white blood cells, our key defence mechanism, are unable to be fully effective in defending the body from infection."

Dr Buckley told me how studies conducted in acute stress situations showed that individual behaviours can also contribute to this increased health risk, such as alcohol intake, smoking and lower sleep, which can be associated with higher cortisol response and subsequent immune changes.

This complex cocktail of responses is likely why we get sick after periods of intense or ongoing physical or psychological stress. "Initially, cortisol inhibits aspects of inflammation," Dr Buckley says, "but if cortisol persists, we then become immune-imbalanced and prone to sickness."

We don't just have a body and a separate entity called the mind – it is mind/body, or body/mind. And it is the connectivity between the two that is constantly balancing our health, our emotions, our feelings, our behaviour. Sustaining performance over time is one of the biggest challenges we all face, and at the same time one of our biggest opportunities.

Avoiding leisure sickness

1. Wax on, wax off

Just as Mr Miagi taught Daniel how to get the balance right between power (activity) and stillness (recovery) in The Karate Kid, we all need to be conscious of this balance in our working lives. Find a more sustainable (and ultimately more successful) operating rhythm interspersing blocks of quality uninterrupted work, with small periods of reflection and recovery. Leisure sickness is much more prevalent in people who are controlling and find it difficult to switch off. Practise activities that stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system like yoga, meditation, diaphragmatic breathing; or just get a few hobbies or interests outside of work.

2. Work, rest and play

Taking Vitamin C makes white blood cells more active, and a review of studies showed Vitamin C halves the risk of common cold in people under heavy physical stress. But a healthy lifestyle, eating the right food and getting enough exercise is also important. You can't counteract weeks of stress, little sleep and no recreation with a dose of vitamins.

3. Holiday countdown

I started doing this strategy with my clients a few years ago: rather than doing an all-nighter just before you take time out, plan what you need to do a week to 10 days before your break. This allows you to be more systematic, and a lot less frantic and stressed, in the lead up to time off.

Do you always get sick after big events or just as you go on holidays? Let us know in the Comments section.