Ever finally gone on a long-awaited holiday, only to get sick? The Dutch call it leisure sickness – the idea that when you finally take a break from a high pressure job, your system can’t cope and goes down in a screaming heap. It’s said that the impact of job stress leads to higher cortisol levels, reducing the strength of your immune system, resulting in illness.
The evidence to support leisure sickness is inconclusive – but there is no denying how difficult it can be to take a break when you’re used to running full steam all the time.
I had a personal experience with this a couple of months ago. I was right in the peak of a demanding point in my marathon training, had been travelling a lot for work, and had extended family staying for a week. I knocked out a record long run on the Sunday, in the heat, and felt great. I finished my run by meeting up with the family, and went on to enjoy a Sunday afternoon brunch and great family dinner with a few wines to boot.
I got up the next morning on autopilot, headed off to my gym class and was surprised at how weak I felt. I caught sight of myself in the mirror at one point and had to do a double-take - I hardly recognised my face. I was red, puffy and bloated.. and completely exhausted. Turns out I was severely dehydrated – apparently two flat whites and a bottle of Pinot Noir is not adequate hydration to replenish after 4 hours of running?! Long story short, I ended up out of action for a week, because I didn’t look after myself properly, got cocky and my body kept the score.
Recovery time is critical because this is when the body adapts to the stress of exercise and the real training effect takes place. This is just as true in our lives and in our organisations – the time and space to rest, recover and reflect is critical for us to adapt to change. We simply don’t value it highly enough.
“Injury makes you wise – Swedish proverb
Stress is an interesting thing – we can handle a bit of it. In fact, we thrive with a good dose of occasional, acute stress. Something that forces us to learn, adapt and grow stronger. Exercise is a great example of this – explosive weight training kicks our muscles into adaptation mode and makes us stronger for next time. Chronic stress, though, is different. This is the grinding, constant pressure that sits behind your temples. This type of stress is dangerous – it infects organisational culture, drives down performance and engagement and leads to illness and issues.
In an organisational capacity review I’ve just completed, the signs of chronic stress overload are starting to rear their ugly head. Coming on the back of a long run of high-pressure workloads and change, staff had been working long hours. While they were OK to power through for a while, a year or more without a break is now taking its toll and performance is starting to suffer, with key staff off on stress leave.
It’s much harder to recover when we get to this point. Not only that, but the potential to grow stronger through adaptation, change and strategy gets lost. Without the time and space to reflect on new experiences and plot a new way forward, we lose a serious opportunity to become resilient and instead become weaker (and dehydrated).
My prescription: recover with intention, by building in the mental and physical space for growth.
How To... Make Space for Recovery
Build time and space into your schedule to reflect and plan
Consider the cumulative impact of stress on yourself and your team
Accept that time out is critical to learn and grow – take a holiday!
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