What do doctors have to say about ‘leisure sickness’?

By Isabelle Coetzee

Around 1,7 million South Africans may be susceptible to “leisure sickness”, says Nicole Jennings, spokesperson for Pharma Dynamics.

This phenomenon mainly affects high performers who carry a lot of responsibility at work. When they finally take time off, they experience flu-like and other symptoms, such as migraines, nausea, and muscular pains.

While at work, their bodies are on high-alert and they can “postpone” their illness until they have achieved their goals. As soon as their holiday comes around, they feel a sense of completion, their bodies relax, and their immune systems become overrun.

This week Justmoney decided to dig a little deeper and find out what South African doctors and psychologists have to say about this.  

According to the original Dutch study on leisure sickness, which was published in 2002 in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, approximately 3% of their respondents reported experiencing the above symptoms during their vacations.

On average, they had suffered from this periodically for over 10 years and it was related to times where they were under severe stress.

The study concluded that leisure sickness is a “relatively common condition”, which is not affected by lifestyle factors, but rather by a high workload and a strong need for achievement.

So, what do South African doctors have to say about this?

Dr David Yesorsky, who has worked as a Cape Town-based GP for over 40 years, says that he has never encountered the term “leisure sickness” before.

However, he has found that travellers often get sick after long aeroplane rides. They pick up germs during international trips, lasting around 18 hours, and they arrive ill, even though they were healthy before they left.

Besides this, he has received patients who often get migraines on the weekends. But he suspects this is related to their lifestyle choices rather than what’s described as leisure sickness.

Pull-out Quote by Dr Solly Lison - “Leisure sickness is a totally new term for me. I would think that these symptoms are more related to a sort of depressive episode.”

“People drink more alcohol over the weekends, they have cheese and wine, they sit for hours watching television, and they spend hours in the bright sunlight. All these things are possible risk factors for headaches and migraines,” says Yesorsky.

Dr Solly Lison, who has worked as a local family physician for just over 50 years, says he’s also never come across anything like leisure sickness before.

“Leisure sickness is a totally new term for me. I would think that these symptoms are more related to a sort of depressive episode,” says Lison.

He points out that people often become depressed during the Christmas holidays. It may be that their partners are no longer around, their family is unable to get together, or something else has happened in their life.

“There is a greater incidence of suicide during the holiday times,” Lison explains.

He points out that depression can however manifest into physical symptoms, because people find it easier to deal with physical ailments than to deal with emotional pain. When there’s less to do, people have more time for introspection, and this could kick-start symptoms akin to leisure sickness.  

What to do if it is leisure sickness?

If you nonetheless feel that leisure sickness resonates with your experiences, Jennings urges those who may be suffering from this to take steps to remedy the situation.

“Our body usually gives us a sign that something is wrong. If you have noticed a pattern of becoming ill on most or all your well-deserved breaks, you need to take action,” says Jennings.

She explains that if you struggle to strike a work-life balance and your heavy workloads constantly interfere with your relationships and family life, you need to start setting boundaries. Start by making a list of the things that you can say no to, prioritise your tasks, ask for assistance, and delegate.

Pull-out quote by Nicole Jennings - Those suffering from leisure sickness will spend an average of R76 on each product. But this will vary, depending on your symptoms.

“Unhealthy work habits lead to increased stress and burnout which can trigger high blood pressure, heart disease, premature ageing, weight gain, and lowered immunity,” says Jennings.

“One should also remember that if you’re ill, you are unable to be productive in the workplace. This can result in an increased workload when you do return to the office,” she adds.

What could leisure sickness cost you?

Among the top 10 most popular medications to deal with the symptoms of leisure sickness, Jennings estimates that those suffering from leisure sickness will spend an average of R76 on each product. But this will vary, depending on your symptoms and the duration of your illness.

Besides this, you may incur further costs for doctors visits, which will depend on whether you’re covered by a medical aid plan, as well as the unique cost of the doctor you see. Your leisure sickness may also continue until after your holiday, forcing you to take sick leave and preventing you from getting your work done.

As a freelancer or contractor, this can be particularly devastating, because you’re not paid for the days you take off and this could have a negative affect on your monthly budget.

If you’re concerned about your health, make sure you see a qualified medical doctor for a proper diagnosis.

This article has been prepared for information purposes only and it does not constitute legal, financial, or medical advice. The publication, journalist, and companies or individuals providing commentary cannot be held liable in any way. Readers are advised to seek legal, financial, or medical advice where appropriate.

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