Vacations, Weekends Make You Sick?
March 9, 2001 -- You'll find them basking, backpacking, boating -- from sunny Cancun to the Blue Ridge Mountains to the local fishing hole -- trying to escape everyday work stress. But for this slim minority of the nation's workforce, vacations and even run-of-the-mill weekends are fraught with headaches and migraines, colds, nausea, and flu-like fevers -- even though these same people are rarely sick during workdays.
That's what happens, according to a new study, when they lug their stresses -- along with their luggage -- on vacation.
It's a phenomenon called leisure sickness, and attitudes toward work, leisure, and relaxation seem to be at the heart of the matter, says Ad Vingerhoets, a psychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He presented findings from his study of this disorder at this week's American Psychosomatic Society annual meeting in Monterey, Calif.
People suffering from leisure sickness, Vingerhoets tells WebMD, typically have a burdensome workload -- and they simply cannot relax, triggering a host of symptoms. At times, they are so engrossed in their work that they subconsciously delay an illness, he says.
"When you are very busy, you may not even be aware you are sick," he says. "You may not pay attention to signals from your body. It's not until you are away from work that you feel tired, feel pain."
For his study, Vingerhoets recruited (through notices placed in local magazines) people suffering from these symptoms. Of the people who responded, he found 45 men and 69 women, average age 44, who had symptoms of leisure sickness. He matched them up with 56 people who did not suffer from the problem. Each completed a questionnaire asking about personality traits, about their feelings during leisure time, and about their appreciation of work and weekend activities.
Among the items on the questionnaire: "When I go on vacation, I really have to prepare myself. I cannot forget my work. When I have time off, I feel guilty because I am not working. I think I really need a vacation. I never have a moment's peace. I can't cope with my work and obligations anymore."
Headache and migraine were the most common symptoms for weekend sufferers, followed by fatigue and muscle pain. During vacations, they often had cold and flu-like symptoms. The pattern generally started around age 26, and most people had a long history of symptoms -- more than 10 years. They generally could trace the onset to something stressful: a new job, the birth of a child, relationship problems, a change of job, or a marriage.
The healthy people reported no such symptoms.
It's not that those with leisure sickness led any different lifestyle, Vingerhoets says. "Their smoking, drinking, sleeping, and coffee-drinking habits were all about the same," he says.