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New word of the month
by Kerry Maxwell

leisure sickness /le skns/ noun [U]
illness which occurs during leisure time, especially during weekends and holidays

'People who get ill at the weekend or while on holiday may be suffering from a 'new' medical condition. Researchers in the Netherlands say a significant proportion of the population is suffering from so-called leisure sickness. They have found 3% of people become ill with a variety of different complaints as soon as they stop working and try to relax.'
(BBCi News, 24th November 2002)

If you spent Christmas day nursing a cold rather than enjoying the delights of good food and relaxation, you may be a victim of a newly identified condition: leisure sickness. This is a term which has recently been adopted on both sides of the Atlantic to refer to a situation that will be very familiar to many of us: we avidly look forward to a rest after a period of intense activity at work, only to be annoyingly struck down with some kind of bug which makes us feel rotten, just when we thought we were going to enjoy ourselves for a few days!

The term leisure sickness was first coined in 2001 by Dr Ad J.J.M. Vingerhoets, a psychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He had seen so many people regularly suffer illness during holidays, both himself and many friends and colleagues, that he didn't believe it to be coincidental. Curious about what was going on, Vingerhoets decided to perform a first investigation. With a team of researchers he conducted a study of 1128 men and 765 women, who were asked to what extent they felt they had experienced symptoms consistent with the definition of leisure sickness. It was found that 3% of people became ill in a variety of ways as soon as they stopped working and tried to relax, many respondents having suffered from the condition for as long as ten years. Colds and flu-like complaints were often associated with longer holidays, while nausea, fatigue and muscular pains were more common at weekends. Stressful occupations and heavy workloads were found to be high risk factors for leisure sickness, as well as certain personality traits such as perfectionism and the general inability to relax.

The concept of leisure sickness is thought to have a sound theoretical basis. The body's defence mechanism works particularly well when it is under stress, being boosted by an output of adrenaline. However as soon as pressure is removed and adrenaline levels fall, there is an increased possibility that a susceptible immune system will collapse.

It seems then that to maintain our health in the twenty-first century, we need to stay busy and keep that adrenaline pumping through! This philosophy will also help us avoid another recently identified disorder: underload syndrome. This term is used to refer to any kind of ill health caused by lack of stimulation or challenges, particularly at work:

'A lack of stimulation at work can have similar negative effects — known to psychologists as "underload syndrome". Studies at the University of Northumbria found that bored people have more days off sick than any other group The most common health complaints triggered by underload syndrome are headaches, fatigue and recurrent infections; it is also a cause of mild depression.'
(Times Online, 2nd February 2003)

The theory here is that people can become, quite literally, bored sick. When stimulation and challenges are removed, the body stops producing vital hormones such as endorphins, resulting in a subsequent drop in metabolic rate. People then have less energy, a sluggish immune system, and are more susceptible to infection.

The term underload syndrome is of course derived from a play on the verb overload, which in one of its core senses means 'giving someone too much work to do'. Though yet to be formally acknowledged in printed dictionaries, there is substantial web evidence for establishment of the noun underload, which is used productively in phrases like information underload (by analogy with information overload) and sensory underload, and generally refers to any lack of stimulation, information or resources.

It seems therefore that perpetual activity and continued stimulation are the route to maintaining a healthy existence and will ensure that we avoid falling prey to the misery of leisure sickness or the symptoms of underload syndrome.

However those of us who become embroiled in our professional lives need to be aware that we may run increased risk of developing other health problems. RSI (repetitive strain injury, also referred to in American English as cumulative trauma disorder) is a long-established term which assumed major significance during the IT revolution and the subsequent advent of the World Wide Web, as people conducted an increasing amount of their daily business at the keyboard. The early eighties also gave us the term sick building syndrome, to refer to symptoms such as fatigue, eye irritation and headaches typically affecting workers in modern office buildings.

Changing lifestyles and working patterns imply changing health issues, and a resultant need to classify previously undescribed complaints. Here are a selection of terms coined during the last decade for common 'ailments' of the electronic age:

email fatigue noun [U] exhaustion caused by receiving a large amount of emails each day. Related terms junk mail fatigue and direct mail fatigue also exist.

phone neck noun [U] neck and shoulder pain caused by holding a phone for long periods. This term was originally coined in the late eighties to describe the muscular problems suffered by office workers after long periods of balancing the phone between their neck and shoulder in order to be able to simultaneously use a computer keyboard. The mainstream use of cordless and mobile phones however has made this concept even more pertinent in the new millennium.

voice injuries noun [plural] throat and speech-related injuries caused by persistent use of voice recognition software. Symptoms include hoarseness and loss of voice. An alternative term is laryngeal stress/strain injuries, related to the superordinate term repetitive strain injury (RSI).

mouse wrist noun [U] pain in the wrist caused by excessive use of a computer mouse. This term is also a hyponym of RSI. The related terms Nintendo thumb and tetwrist have been popularised in America to refer to repetitive strain injuries caused by compulsive use of electronic games.

text message injury (also TMI) noun [U] a form of RSI caused by excessive use of the thumb in typing text messages into a mobile phone.


For more information about new and topical words and phrases, read Kerry's Word of the Week articles on the MED Resource Site.