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social jet lag

noun [uncountable]

the feeling of being very tired when you return to work after a holiday, especially because of changes to your sleeping pattern

'… people are left feeling similar effects to jet-lag whereby they struggle to get up in the morning, feel sluggish, find it difficult to fall asleep at night and feel sleepy during the day – a phenomenon dubbed social jet lag.'

The Telegraph, UK 21st December 2010

It's an experience many of us will be familiar with: you enjoy a break from work, whether it's a holiday or a week or so at home, and then on the dreaded day you return to the office your post-holiday blues are compounded by a general feeling of sluggishness and just not being able 'to get going'. This unanticipated fatigue which assaults us on our return to work now has a new term of reference – it's being called social jet lag.

the root cause of social jet lag is the more relaxed sleeping pattern that many people adopt when on holiday

Workaholics excepted, the majority of people experience a range of negative emotions when they go back to work after a holiday period – after leading a relatively carefree existence, it's no fun toiling away all day, is it? But on top of that general sense of anticlimax, there's often a very real physical sensation of feeling 'not right' – tiredness, lack of energy or the ability to concentrate, irritability, or possibly indigestion or loss of appetite. Observing that these symptoms are very similar to those experienced by people suffering jet lag (a feeling of fatigue experienced by travellers crossing time zones), researchers have coined the expression social jet lag to refer to this phenomenon. Social jet lag is defined as the difference between 'biological time' and 'external requirements', or, in other words, a person's body clock being out of kilter with what the demands of a working day impose.

The root cause of social jet lag is the more relaxed sleeping pattern that many people adopt when on holiday. Conscious that they don't need to be up at the crack of dawn the next day, people luxuriate in the opportunity to lie in, getting up later in the morning and going to bed later in the evening. Faced with going back to work after perhaps as much as two weeks of a different cycle of waking and sleeping, a person's body clock is thrown out of sync when they are forced to get up much earlier in the day. This has a similar effect to the one experienced by flying west across one or more time zones.

Thankfully, like conventional jet lag, social jet lag usually only lasts a couple of days. If you'd like to avoid it completely however, there is a solution, though it's not a particularly appealing one. In order to ensure that your body clock doesn't drift too far from the patterns of a normal working day, the trick is to get up early when you're on holiday – at the time you would normally get up for work or not too much later. Mmmm … like that's really going to happen?!

Background – social jet lag

The term social jet lag was coined in 2006 by researchers at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, who were investigating the problems caused by differences between a person's internal biological clock and the official clock time that society follows.

A person's internal biological clock is also sometimes referred to as their circadian rhythm, a term based on the Latin words circa ('around/about') and dies ('day'). The circadian rhythm can be influenced by what is technically referred to as a zeitgeber (from German, literally 'time giver'), the primary example of which is daylight.

It's one thing to feel under par when you go back to work, but even more frustrating if you fall ill at the start of a holiday period. Noticing that this irritating scenario was all too frequent, in 2001 researchers in the Netherlands coined the term leisure sickness to refer to illness which occurs during weekends and holidays.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 25th July 2011.

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