When all most of us are trying to do in life is make it through the day, drink enough water and manage to hold a conversation without nodding off, I’m aware that the last thing you need is a new thing to worry about. So, sorry, but you’re almost certainly suffering from social jet lag right now — and it’s a problem.
What is social jet lag?
Not to be confused with overseas travel, social jet lag is a relatively new term, but around 87 percent of people in industrialised countries such as the UK suffer from it. The effects mirror that of real jet lag, and can impact on everything from daily tasks to long-term health.
Basically, social jet lag occurs as a direct result of not getting enough sunlight, and your body being totally confused about when you should be asleep. It’s the discrepancy between your natural biological cycle and what you have been conditioned to believe is the social norm. It’s the difference between dragging yourself out of bed in the week, and your blissful, undisturbed weekend slumber.
But it’s not necessarily your Sunday lie-in that’s the issue.
Chronobiologist Till Roenneberg, author of Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired, says that we’ve become so used to blaming ourselves for our social jet lag, when really it’s the work schedule and lack of time spent outdoors that’s tipping us over the edge. He told Cosmopolitan UK:
“Every time we need an alarm clock it just means we were forced to wake too early. So five days a week most of us are forced to live in a time zone that is not corresponding to our biological time zone. It’s as if somebody in London has to work in St. Petersburg, but never leaves London.
“It’s only on weekends that we can live according to our own biological time zone.”
“THE FACT IS, WE’RE GOING TO WORK TOO EARLY.”
Essentially, the body’s natural wake-up time is what we should really be listening to. As Professor Roenneberg simply states, “Interestingly, most Anglo-Saxons think that social jet lag is caused by sleeping in on weekends and therefore you should set your alarm also on Saturdays and Sundays. This is the Puritan talking. Fact is, we’re going to work too early.”
A study in 2017 from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine backs this up. Researchers found that people with an erratic sleep schedule suffer from lower moods, more health issues and more sleep dysfunction than people who maintain a regular sleep pattern seven days of the week.
Getting over social jet lag
Employees are beginning to wise up. Alexa Cobbold, a Senior PR from York made the decision to speak to her boss about changing her schedule after seeing her work-life balance suffer from early mornings.
“Leaving the house at 7am and not getting back until 7pm was super tiring,” she explained. “I was fed up of not having the energy to go see friends/go out running which really helps with my stress and mental health levels, and having to explain to my manager that I was late.
“It took me about a year and a half of awkwardly shuffling into the office 15 minutes late and hoping no one had noticed, plus a change in manager, to say something.”
A half-hour shift in schedule has made all the difference.
“It’s the best thing I think they could have done — I’m more positive about life, I see my friends and boyfriend without clock-watching and I can fit in long runs, dinner and a little extra time for me-time too,” she explained.
“I’m lucky to have a flexible and “for the people” management team who allowed it to happen.”
While Professor Roenneberg says all companies have a responsibility to adapt to individuals’ sleep needs, he acknowledges that we may be 10 or 20 years away from truly flexible work hours. Until then, we can do ourselves a favour by taking matters into our own hands.
How to help yourself
“It is important to inform the system, to inform society and to inform employers that they’re more productive if they change work times,” he explained.
“It’s your bad conscience that makes you say, ‘It’s the lazy me on weekends,’ instead of acknowledging that the early work schedules is the culprit.”
It’s probably worth noting at this point that all employees in the UK (apart from Northern Ireland, where rules are different), have the legal right to request flexible working; for example, a change in start and finish times.
But, if an extra hour in bed just isn’t doable for you right now, there are some steps you can take to minimise the effects of social jet lag.
Hope Bastine, sleep psychologist for high-tech mattress maker Simba, says we need to identify our individual sleep needs first.
“SLEEP DEBT’ NEEDS TO BE TREATED AS CAREFULLY AS REAL DEBT.”
“Experiment with your productivity and your performance rate and adjusting your time schedule to that,” she told Cosmopolitan UK. “Find a rhythm, a schedule, a lifestyle that really suits you, and that makes you feel in harmony with yourself. Make sure your sleep schedule is as non-negotiable as possible.”
She says that “sleep debt” — the fatigue we pile up as we lose hours during the week, needs to be treated as carefully as real debt.
“If you’re trying to catch up on your sleep debt, go to bed just one hour earlier, and sleep in one hour later. It’s spreading out the repayment of your sleep debt, like you would your credit card, or your mortgage. You don’t pay it all at once, you spread it out.
“In that way, you’re not changing your brain too much in terms of your habits, but you are still trying to catch up on sleep.”
So the good news is, fixing your social jet lag is totally doable. Figuring out what suits your personal schedule, and how you can make small changes to stick to it where possible, could make all the difference to your lifestyle. It might even give you more time to enjoy weekends.