It’s the half term break and my Twitter feed is full of the usual story: teachers falling ill as their long awaited holiday starts. Is this just coincidence, people get sick all the time, so some will in their holiday, or is this a real effect? Are teachers actually more likely to become ill during the break from school? More importantly, if it is real, what can we do to prevent it?
This term ‘leisure sickness’ has been coined by Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets to describe the widespread anecdotal experience of becoming ill when we have a holiday. This isn’t a condition formally recognised in medicine but while there isn’t a straightforward mechanism to explain a link, we do know that illness can be induced by the effects of stress. It’s not the holiday itself that makes us ill, but the impact of stress in the run up to the holiday on our immune system.
Stress and Illness
In 1984 Janice Keicolt-Glaser demonstrated a link between exam-related stress in medical students and reduced immune function. Sheldon Cohen then demonstrated that people who reported stressful events in their life were more likely to become infected when intentionally exposed to cold viruses using nasal drops and were also more likely to develop clinical cold symptoms. Cohen’s research later showed that a range of chronic stressors (ie persisting for a month or more) increased our susceptibility to the common cold. The most significant stressors investigated in this study were those related to work.
So there is good evidence that chronic stress can impair immune function and increase susceptibility to infectious disease, but what about teaching? In a study of almost 300 US teachers, Dworkin et al (1990) found that illness increased proportionally to job stress. This supports the idea that workplace stress in schools contributes to teachers becoming ill.
Since a half-term is typically 6-8 weeks, workplace stress for teachers typically persists for over a month at a time, falling into Cohen’s definition of ‘chronic’. This is enough time for our immune system to become impaired do that we become more susceptible to infection. Add to this the incubation period for most cold viruses, and that’s the right timescale for teachers to begin coughing and sneezing just as their holiday starts!
What can we do?
The good news is that research indicates that there are several things we can do to reduce our chances of becoming ill.
1. Looking after our work-life balance during term-time rather than waiting for down-time in the holiday. We need to balance the demands of work with our health needs all the time. Easier said than done! Significant steps include being able to switch off from work and getting enough quality sleep.
2. Looking after our health. This includes making time for exercise, eating healthily, and avoiding things which have an adverse impact on our ability such as smoking. Cohen’s research shows that all these have a protective function. Initiatives like Teacher 5 a day can be a big help here.
3. Looking after each other. There is good research evidence that social support can provide protection against the effects of stress. If we all take some time to look out for each other, perhaps especially towards the end of term, we will all fare better. Those in leadership positions may have a special role to play: Dworkin’s study found that there was significantly less stress-related illness among teachers with a supportive School Principal.
You might also be interested in my posts on holidays and health which explore differences in resting heart rate during term-time and holidays.