Ebookers recently found that 4 out of five Bits already feel like they need a holiday so soon after Chrsitmas and more worryingly- 40% of Brits don’t take their full holiday entitlement every year.
We spoke to Dr Christian Jessen about the health issues most caused by the resisting rest, breaks and holidays. He walks us through the most concerning health issues caused as a result of not taking breaks.
The research shows that 13% of people already feel stressed just a few days into January. Why do you think so soon after Christmas, Brits are already yearning for a break?
I think it’s a combination of things. First of all, Christmas really isn’t a break is it? There’s lots to do; you see family, which in itself can be quite stressful and you have to run around and get ready. It’s hardly a holiday even though we do all look forward to it. I don’t think you really get any proper down time.
If you have kids, they are all desperately excited, they get up early and they start tearing about. For parents it’s really not a break at all.
Some people don’t have much time off over Christmas anyway. Remember also that the light is changing- we have shorter days and longer nights, which really affects some people in terms of their natural rhythms. We know that Seasonal Affective Disorder can really kick in at this time of year.
Depressions and anxieties can get worse over winter as well. Before you know it, you’ve barely sneezed and you’re back at work again. You think- ‘what was all that Christmas holiday business about because I don’t feel like I’ve had any?’
I think that is a light-hearted summary of all the different reasons of why people feel like they still need a break. I think most people can relate to that don’t you?
Why are some people afraid to use their holiday? Something they are entitled to as part of their working contract?
I don’t know if this is coming over from an American style work ethic where taking breaks, holidays and time off shows weakness.
I often write about this- when people are ill- they really need to stay away from work and from other people. You are just going to be sicker for longer and you are much more likely to make everyone else ill too. No one is going to thank you- you are not going to be very productive at work. Yet people still think it’s the right thing to do to bravely struggle on into work when you’re pouring virus everywhere. It’s not really very sensible. In a fairly cutthroat world where we are all trying to climb up the ladder and build our careers; it’s possible people think the person who takes time off and disappears may miss out.
I don’t know whether it’s something to do with that or there are other reasons why people don’t take time off. We do know from the studies that it affects your health in all sorts of ways; people do need down time. In countries like America where people have something like ten days off a year- I don’t know how they do it to be quite honest.
What kind of health risks are we prone to if we don’t take a break?
There are many- it all depends on the stresses and things you are suffering from. It also depends on what you need to take a break from. If we just talk about simple stress and rest to start with.
When you are working all day every day (as most people keep an eye on emails and phones over the weekend) you never really switch off and let your brain have time to focus on other subconscious issues. Issues like sorting the problems out within your own body rather than the constant analysing and checking of work stuff.
People do it all night long. People have their phones by their bed and last thing at night and first thing in the morning they are checking their emails. You never really get that proper switching off time.
Stress can lead to all sorts of things. Stress can lead to cancer, it increases your risk of heart disease and high blood pressure. The standard list of things that we know very well plays a part in that. A chronic lack of sleep can lead to mental health problems, anxieties and depressions.
Eating is another big thing. It can lead to very disordered eating if you are not getting rest and down time. We see this a lot within the obesity epidemic, which is a result of the availability and quality of food but I think it’s also very related to lifestyle. As soon as you start getting stressed, you start eating more carbohydrates and sugary foods. When people are working late at night, that is exactly the sort of food that they want. Long term, that will almost certainly cause weight gain.
How long does it typically take for these health problems to materialise?
That’s a very good question. Everyone is different so some people will be more resilient than others. Some people will be able to work hard because they have learned how to sleep properly and they’ve learned how to switch off when they do switch off. If they are doing that, they will obviously be able to carry on for a while longer.
Those who have a poor quality sleep, have interrupted sleep, those who don’t take breaks, holidays or who don’t rest over the weekend are quite likely to run into problems.
It will probably start off with some gradual weight gain, an increased blood pressure, borderline blood sugar, that sort of thing. I can’t give you actual numbers- as you can imagine they will be different for everyone. We do start to see these things in people who are just reaching their forties- most commonly. That is the sort of warning age, when these things really start to show in your blood tests and your medical reports.
How can breaks positively affect our relationships, our sex lives and our productivity at work?
First of all- you remember that you’ve got a partner and your partner remembers you exist. A lot of couples barely see each other during the week at all. Then you cram a load of things in during the evening as well that are work related or other things.
I live in London and I feel that I should be taking advantage of London by going out and going to the theatre and this, that and the other. But you suddenly realise that you don’t have a free evening or week. It gets a bit desperate when that is repeated on a weekly basis.
Acknowledging that you have a partner and spending some time with them where you’re not sharing that time with your mobile phone or your Blackberry is obviously really important. As is, when you feel rested and you can lounge around doing absolutely nothing.
Try to remember what it was like when you first met. When you used to do exactly that. That very quickly goes out of the window in most relationships. They fall into a clockwork routine. That joy of spontaneity that early relationships have gets quickly lost. I think that rediscovering that on holiday really works wonders for your sex life but for more than that- for the integrity of the relationship itself.
If you are exhausted, you will be able to run along doing okay for a while. We all have a lot of reserve. The body is very cleverly designed so that we can keep going. The fight or flight mechanism means you can keep going by running on your stress hormone for several years probably. Of course, if you do this, you won’t be functioning at your best.
I think a good example is- look at athletes at the Olympics. Look at their lifestyles and the importance of rest and sleep. Training is important but rest days while training are just as important. The same thing applies to all of us whether we are Olympic athletes or not.
The idea of having quality down time to allow your brain to recover is vital.
When you sleep, you probably have your best thoughts and best ideas. You can process the crap that is happening and deal with that. You probably start to come up with solutions to problems that you’re facing. This will probably happen when you’re asleep. They may occur to you during the day but the actual link or lightbulb moment has probably happened during the night. If you are not resting properly, that is not going to happen. Therefore, those little eureka moments are a lot less likely to happen or you.
If you find out that your health has taken a hit from working too hard what is your advice to do next?
I don’t mean this in a sort of selfish way but people need to start putting themselves first and their health first over and above work. I’m fully aware that it’s not necessarily an easy thing to do.
We do get fairly generous holiday time here. You can take short breaks. You can take a half day on a Friday and have a weekend off. That doesn’t really require you to take much holiday at all. It is important that you are getting the rest periods if that is what it’s related to. If it’s related to other things, deal with them however you doctor advises you to.
This idea of taking short breaks, mini breaks, weekends away- I’m not talking about two weeks to go on safari or a Nile cruise; it doesn’t have to be that. It just has to be a means of finding something away from the grind. The daily routine, the mobile phone and the emails- that can make a huge difference. I think most people say when they have been away on one of these breaks that even if they were only away for two nights on paper it actually felt like a fairly decent amount of time. They do feel much better afterwards. The proof of the pudding is in the eating and I think all of the couples who have been on one of these weekend breaks say ‘I do feel great for having done it- we must do more of these’. Then of course we never do anymore which is so bizarre.
There are so many different definitions of a ‘healthy’ lifestyle now- so what would you say to people who are getting confused by all these mixed messages?
I would say are you eating as well as you can with as much variety and as much balance in your diet? I am not going to go into diet any more than that. And when I say variety, I don’t mean different coloured sweets, I mean different coloured vegetables preferably.
Are you taking some exercise regularly? That doesn’t have to mean anything other than three or four times a week. Forty-five minutes three or four times a week is fine. You don’t have to take some sort of Iron Man challenge to consider yourself as having done exercise.
I think the problem is- we seem to love working to extremes. We tend to all go a little bit too much too fast with everything we do. When we talk about healthy eating, people strip back their diet to the bare minimum. They give up gluten, sugar- everything and that actually becomes quite detrimental to their health.
When they said they were going to exercise, instead of a fairly easy to do 45 minute, four times a week, they suddenly decide they are going to run the London Marathon and do an Iron Man Challenge within six months. That’s not exactly great either.
Part of that is your rest time- are you switching off at night? Are you spending Sunday slumped in front of the TV? Or do you have hobbies? Do you have something different that takes you away from work? It’s not to say you don’t enjoy your work- that’s fine- lots of people enjoy their work and want to do it and that’s good but you need something else that just switches your mind from one way of thinking to another.
I think if you can just cover those three things, assess them and see how you are doing on a personal level, that’s all there is to it really.
It’s really very simple and yet we constantly try to overcomplicate it- which frustrates me.
How do you personally find that work life balance and do you have any techniques for managing stress?
I find it as hard as everyone else does! Do as I say and not as I do! I know it’s hard but for some strange reason we base our life and work life around something that’s not ideal for us. We have designed that we will have three meals a day and that’s not really right for most people.
We have all these funny ways in which we have a routine in our life. I think someone needs to have a sit down and reschedule the way in which life is lived. We could come up with something a lot better, which would make us a lot healthier. It’s an interesting concept. It’s just occurred to me that the idea of sitting down and rescheduling life- I quite like. Even looking at the idea of five days’ work and two days off perhaps isn’t the best way. You could maybe look at different studies that examine if it’s the most sensible way of doing things. But that’s not something that’s not going to change.
I think the important thing is, when you have that night off and you have that temptation to cram something in like drinks out or have a little bit of down time, those are the decisions that are crucial.
For instance- drinking alcohol in the evening tends to ruin your sleep. You tend to go without a deep sleep or true rest period. So if you think ‘I’m going to have a night out with my friends and go to the pub and have a drink and a curry- it would be good for me’, I’m afraid to say- it’s not. The alcohol means you are not going to sleep effectively. Your tiredness will get worse- not better. I am guilty of that as everyone else is- it’s about making those choices a bit better.
You’ve asked me; do I do it very well? No. Do I know what I should be doing? Yes. Do I do it? Not as much as I should be doing- just like everyone else.
What is next for you?
I have a big new TV show coming out soon. We don’t have an official air date yet. It’s a really interesting show looking at the psychology of ill health. It’s taking illness and seeing how it affects the mind, the people you live with and relationships. How often a symptom, say Irritable Bowel Syndrome or the pain in your knee is in fact not the symptom of a disease but a symptom of a deeper underlying unhappiness in life or a psychological problem that manifests as a physical one.
It was really fascinating, when we filmed it. I was amazed at every case we got in. We had the luxury of time to sit and talk with them. Behind whatever the initial condition, there was a whole host of other deep set, long-term psychological problems. By treating those, we dealt with more issues than just the one thing they came in with.
It really questions this idea of- ‘is a ten minute GP consultation really the best way to manage the nations’ health?’ I would argue that it isn’t really possible to look after someone’s health completely in ten minutes, it’s impossible and maybe that needs to change.