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With holiday season approaching, performance and wellbeing specialist Andrew May takes a look at some strategies to prevent the health crash that sometimes comes when we take a break from work.


Many small business operators are at high risk of getting sick right now, and I’m not referring to the virus that’s dominated our lives for the past two years. Rather, the type of sickness you get when your immune system is run down, and when you finally do slow down, your body has a way of balancing everything out by forcing you to rest and take it easy. If you aren’t a prime candidate for this, your clients may be.

There are several convergent factors at play. Firstly, many businesses have been forced to lay people off or keep staff on reduced hours, meaning those remaining have to pick up the slack and work longer hours. Add to this, working from home has blurred the boundaries for many, obliterating their work/life balance, people are typically drinking more during the pandemic and the uncertainty has resulted in elevated stress levels for many people.

When they finally stop, it may be a time many people crash. But why do we tend to crash after holidays, big projects, or big upheavals in our lives?

To explain this phenomenon, Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets and his colleagues from Tilburg University in Holland interviewed 1,128 men and 765 women and they coined the term ‘Leisure Sickness.’

Ad Vingerhoets found “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.”


Looking through the microscope

Dr Tom Buckley is an Associate Professor in the Critical/Acute Care teaching and research team at the University of Sydney, and Director of the Strive Stronger Research Institute. 

He explains that the phenomenon is not fully understood by many, in part because the immune system is so complex. Dr Buckley explains that “psychological stress is associated with mobilisation of white blood cells, which work to fight off infection. At the same time, elevated stress hormones affect our immune system and result in a scenario where white blood cells are unable to be fully effective in defending the body from infection.”

“Initially cortisol inhibits aspects of inflammation, but if cortisol persists, we then become immune imbalanced and prone to sickness” he adds.

Dr Buckley also explains that research from his lab has found increased alcohol intake was a predictive factor in this relationship, suggesting behaviours also contribute to crashing after big events.


Avoiding ‘Leisure Sickness’

In addition to keeping physically active, eating a nutritious diet and getting adequate rest, there are a few other techniques to reduce risk of that holiday crash.


1. Rev up the vitamins

Dr Buckley suggests taking Vitamin C (which makes white cells more active and a review of studies showed Vitamin C halves common cold risk in people under heavy physical stress). In addition, although Echinacea taken long term doesn’t appear to be preventative of sickness, when taken early in symptom onset of cold or flu, it appears to be associated with shorter symptom onset.


2. Chill out

Professor Vingerhoets believes ‘Leisure Sickness’ is much more prevalent in people who are controlling and find it difficult to switch off and relax. “We have the impression it has to do with psychological make-up – especially people who are perfectionists”. As a general strategy to be healthier and more relaxed, practice activities that stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, like yoga, meditation, diaphragmatic breathing; or just get a few hobbies or interests outside of work.


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 well-earned break. This allows you to be more systematic, and a lot less frantic and stressed, in the lead up to time off.


It’s been another tough year for fitness professionals in many parts of Australia and New Zealand. While the opportunity to return to training and instructing is being embraced, so should the opportunity for some relaxation as the year winds down. Relax, recharge your batteries and come back ready to press reset in 2022.



Andrew May

Andrew is a workplace performance and wellbeing specialist. His company, StriveStronger, has teamed with NAB to provide a free health and wellbeing program to help SMEs and their staff be more resilient, transition to new ways of working and sustain physical and psychological wellbeing. Sign up for free at NAB Business Fit



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