An industry pal moaned to me recently: “Why do I get ill the moment I go on holiday?” Sadly, it is the classic tale of the stressed out worker. As executives wind down for their annual break, their exhausted bodies slow down too and that is when viruses and other nasty bugs strike. By letting your guard down, your body’s immune system collapses opening itself up to a whole host of invaders all eager to feast on your burnt-out system.
I recall one colleague who was so prepared for losing at least half a week of his leave to ‘leisure sickness’ that he never jetted anywhere until a few days after his break had started. “What is the point,” he said. “I do not want to spend my holiday in bed, so I might as well stay at home until it passes.”
He has a point, but surely resigning himself to illness is another way to bring it on. When we are at work, our adrenaline keeps us going. We know, as part of a team, we are needed and not turning up will affect others around us. So, unless it is a serious ailment, we ignore minor sniffles and soldier on.
But the body’s ability to tell you: ‘look mate, you have been putting me through the mill lately, so now you are having a rest I am going to repay you with a nasty flu bug’, can be more extreme than just ruining a holiday – it can kill your weekends, too.
You work long, stressful hours, and finally meet all your deadlines at the end of the week. Then that niggling cold that you have been fighting off with large doses of vitamin C and pain killers storms in and wipes you out. Your weekend passes in a haze of mucus and tissues and then it is the first day of the week all over again.
Scientific research has found chemical links between your brain, nervous system and immune system but how they all tie up is unclear. What is known is that, rather annoyingly, stress has the power to suppress your immune system. So when you are up against it, your body keeps going and it is only when you stop that the worst happens.
So why do not we notice the symptoms of illness when the pressure is on? Well it is simple really – we are too busy. It is only when you have time to breathe that sickness really engulfs your system and by then it is too late to prevent it. After all the runny nose and chesty phlegm are just the immune system’s response to the attack.
Post-stress illness serves another purpose, too. It is telling you, you are taking on too much. In a previous job, I lost every Saturday morning to a chronic migraine. I only began to enjoy my weekend around 2pm. Eventually I realised the pressure of work was behind it. I was literally suffering a work hangover every Saturday. The solution was to change jobs. Drastic, but necessary. So if you are losing quality time every weekend or every holiday perhaps it is time to update your CV.