Back at work today? Us, too. While it’s great to enjoy a four-day holiday weekend, it makes it all the more brutal to try to gin up momentum for a three-day week sandwiched between two holidays. Scientists call it social jet lag, and you can blame it for making you tired, unmotivated, and a few pounds heavier than you were before Christmas.
Social jet lag is just a fancy term for a phenomenon that most of us know well: You’ve spent the last four days sleeping in, staying up late, and napping, and you’re not ready to snap back to reality. As one expert told CNN this year, it’s “the discrepancy between what our body clock wants us to do and what our social clock wants us to do.” In other words, your boss says, “Rise and shine!” while your body says, “Hit snooze.” It’s compared to jet lag because you’re essentially “flying” between two time zones every time we shift between a work day and a day off.
During the holidays, you allow your body clock to reset to its natural rhythms. If you use an alarm clock to wake up on weekdays, and especially if it’s a struggle, that’s a clue that your “social schedule” is not in synch with your natural one.
It’s hard to get too off track during a normal weekend. But when you’ve had three or four days off in a row — let alone almost two weeks, for the luck souls whose offices are closed until January 2 — it’s much harder to return to the schedule required by work. As the Telegraph summed it up a few years ago, “Those suffering from social jet lag can expect to experience symptoms similar to jet lag, including indigestion, loss of appetite, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, clumsiness, feeling generally unwell, lack of energy, fatigue and irritability.”
This year, some scientists have even blamed “social jet lag” for weight gain. If your work schedule is consistently out of whack with your natural sleep schedule, watch out. A study of 65,000 adults found that people whose weekend sleep schedules are different than their weekday sleep schedules were three times likelier to be overweight. It’s not clear exactly why, but it’s clear that sleep rhythms have a major impact on health. Another study this year found that women whose sleep patterns are disrupted by working the night shift may have a significantly higher risk of developing breast cancer. Shift workers, including emergency room doctors, can experience major health problems associated with wildly changing work schedules.
The solution to this “December 26” problem is to try to align your weekend sleep schedule with your weekday schedule as much as possible, avoiding that “screeching back to work” feeling after a holiday. Employers should also consider offering flexible work schedules that allow workers to work according to their own natural rhythms. But that advice won’t do you much good today. So how about another cup of coffee?