What is leisure sickness?

At the end of the 20th century, Ad Vingerhoets and Maaike van Huijgevoort, psychologists at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, first studied the syndrome of leisure sickness. Essentially, they found that many people seem to get sick on weekends and holidays, not because of viral illnesses, but because they're not working. This condition can produce symptoms such as insomnia, nausea, exhaustion, cold or flu symptoms, and headaches.

In addition to the symptoms listed above, leisure sickness is associated with aches and pains and a general feeling of fatigue. Those with the condition can also have lousy vacations, because they often feel sick or lack the energy to enjoy the activities they planned to do. This illness is considered psychosomatic, because most people who suffer from it do not suffer from any viral or bacterial infection.

In early studies by these psychologists, it seemed that certain personality types are more likely to develop this condition. People who are generally overworked, expressed a lot of stress around work, or rarely took a break from work were the most common victims. Others who tended to be affected by it were those for whom vacation planning was considered especially stressful. In contrast, those who did not report being sick while on vacation likely exhibited healthy attitudes toward work, had a balanced work and social life, and enjoyed planning their free time, without considering it stressful.

For some people, the sudden transition from work orientation to leisure orientation brought symptoms of leisure illness. It's as if they didn't really know what to do with themselves, even when they had plans, because their core focus was usually work. This appeared in the body as symptoms of stress, which in turn became symptoms of illness.

When people took long vacations, many reported feeling better after a week or so. Still, some reported that they were always sick on vacation, no matter how long. In the first scenario, it appears that some people are able to shift their focus to leisure mode instead of work and recover from illness after being away from work for a while.

It seems that addressing attitudes towards work can help leisure sickness. Many of those who reported it also reported thinking about work most of the time when they were not working, and some also noted that they felt guilty about not working in their spare time. It's pretty easy to draw lines between worry about work, stress, and illness.

However, the suggestion is that curing leisure sickness means changing attitudes about work. This could mean that a person allows themselves vacation entitlements and, during their work week, continues to participate in social activities so that there is a better balance between work and relaxation. From a stress standpoint, many people can feel less stress when they deliberately focus on the present, not letting their jobs "come home with them." This cannot always be mastered, but if every vacation represents another bout of illness, individuals might find it worthwhile to investigate how to change their attitudes toward work.

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