By Lauren Donley

    At this time of year, most of us are probably making a list and checking it a lot more than twice. But following a mad dash to the festive finish line, we’ll put up that out-of-office sign and start to unwind. Until illness hits like a punch to the guts from John McClane. If this scenario sounds all too familiar, you’re not alone.

    In 2002, a Dutch psychologist named Professor Ad Vingerhoets published a study introducing us to ‘leisure sickness’, a phenomenon he describes as: ‘the condition of people developing symptoms of sickness during weekends and/or vacations’.

    To be clear, leisure sickness is not a recognised medical condition, and further research on the topic has been distinctly lacking over the last 20 years. But this idea of getting sick on holiday is so widely accepted that ‘leisure sickness’ was added to the Macquarie Australian English Dictionary in 2022. It was even short-listed for Word of the Year, only to be beaten in a public vote by ‘bachelor’s handbag’, ‘teal’ and ‘spicy cough’.

    Who gets leisure sickness?

    The study by Professor Vingerhoets and his team at Tilburg University in the Netherlands surveyed over 1,800 people and found that around 3% of men and women experienced leisure sickness. A follow-up survey of 170 people showed that the most common symptoms were headache, cold and flu, aches, pains, nausea and fatigue. Just under half attributed their symptoms to the transition from work to holiday.

    Many of those with a history of leisure sickness shared similar characteristics, including a high-achieving personality type, difficulty relaxing, and a strong sense of responsibility at work. It isn’t hard to imagine how one or more of these traits might make it more difficult to slip out of work mode and into a holiday kaftan.

    What causes it?

    Professor Vingerhoets offers a few possible explanations for those holiday symptoms. One is that when we switch off from work, our immune systems also power down and take a short break, leaving us more susceptible to illness. 

    Another theory is that our bodies have an unconscious ability to delay sickness until a more convenient time. While this may sound far-fetched, Professor Vingerhoets points to the example of terminally ill patients delaying their mortality until after a significant event, such as a milestone birthday or the birth of a grandchild.

    A considerably less intriguing explanation is that leisure sickness is simply a combination of all those holiday experiences that don’t make it onto our Instagram feeds – the pressurised airplane travel, lack of sleep, crowded tourist attractions, holiday happy hours, cruise ship buffets, lack of exercise, unfamiliar exercise … the list goes on.

    Alternatively, it might all be a figment of our imaginations! That is, we’re actually no more or less likely to get sick while on holiday. Rather, we just have more vivid memories of the experiences that derail our expensive and meticulously organised travel plans. And it’s these memories that stick in our minds – and holiday anecdotes – for years to come.

    How to prevent leisure sickness

    According to Professor Vingerhoets, doing some exercise after your final day of work could help with the transition from business to leisure. However, if this sounds like a highly unattainable and/or unappealing goal, the alternatives are what you might expect – trying to manage stress, staying hydrated, maintaining good hygiene, and generally taking care of yourself.

    On the off chance that you are struck down by leisure sickness, some recent research might offer a bit of hope. A small European study published in early 2023 found that symptoms tend to appear within the first three days of a trip, and they usually last for no longer than three days. So, you might want to consider taking an extra few days of leave at the other end of your holiday to compensate. Just tell your boss it’s backed by science. Yippee-ki-yay and happy holidays. 

    Human Interest
    Human Interest
    Welcome to your regular column on the science of human beings…and being human. Brought to you by Lauren Donley, an unashamed science nerd who never misses an opportunity to share a story about bodily functions. Please note that this article is for general interest and is not a replacement for medical care. If you have any questions or concerns about your health, please contact your doctor.

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