A third of Australians suffer from jet lag, and not the type that can be blamed on a long-haul flight.
Social jetlag – when a person’s natural body clock and daily routine don’t align – is robbing many adult Australians of refreshing quality sleep a night, new research from the Sleep Health Foundation survey has found.
A study published today in the prestigious international journal Sleep Medicine has found that in 31 per cent of those surveyed, the time they sleep is more than an hour out of sync with their body clock on weekends compared with work nights.
“That’s a large chunk of our population whose body clocks are out of alignment, a problem known to negatively impact health and wellbeing,” says Professor Robert Adams, the study’s lead researcher and sleep specialist with the University of Adelaide and the Sleep Health Foundation. "These findings serve to further illustrate the widespread problem of insufficient sleep in our country and indicate an urgent need for a national inquiry to relieve our sleep loss epidemic. We need to realise that it’s not just about how much sleep we get – it’s when we get it.”
Professor Adams and his team analysed the responses of 837 people who were not shift workers, who completed the Sleep Health Foundation Australia 2016 online survey to produce the nation’s first estimates of ‘social jetlag’.
Social jetlag is the misalignment between an individual’s circadian rhythms and their environment due to social impositions like work or school. “For instance, a person who is naturally a night owl but must start work at 7am is at a higher risk of being socially jetlagged,” Professor Adams explains “And the same can be said of morning larks who routinely stay up late on international work calls.”
The analysis revealed a third of Australian adults regularly experience more than one hour of social jetlag, a similar result to that seen in a large-scale Dutch study. Full time workers were worst affected, with some routinely suffering more than two hours social jetlag on work days compared to non-work days.
Socially jet lagged respondents were more likely to sleep too late, wake up feeling tired, be late for work, and also go to work when they felt they should have taken sick leave.
“This suggests that people with social jetlag are either less able to recognise their sickness signs or they feel a degree of pressure to work despite being unwell or just plain tired,” Professor Adams says. “Either way, it’s time we considered the consequences of these employees driving, operating dangerous machinery and potentially spreading contagious illness in the workplace.”
The study also found a correlation between social jetlag and device use. “We found that those with social jetlag were more likely to have a laptop, phone or other device in the bedroom and frequently use the internet in the hour before sleep, either for work or entertainment,” he says.
Specifically, Professor Adams noted that of those with the most severe form of jet lag, over two thirds had a computing/internet device in their bedroom.
This finding is particularly concerning when paired with recent research showing technology use before bed shortens sleep, increases fatigue and is a known barrier to changing sleep behaviours among those who want to better and more efficient sleep.
While further longitudinal population studies are needed to confirm the survey’s findings, the results nonetheless contribute to a growing, and unavoidably worrying, body of information which suggests poor sleep is taking a serious toll on the health and welfare of Australians, the expert says.
“A national inquiry is urgently needed to examine the full extent of Australia’s sleep deprivation problem and bring in policy initiatives to support our nation prioritizing sleep for their own wellbeing, and for the health and safety of those around us,” Professor Adams says.
For those looking to beat social jetlag, the Sleep Health Foundation has some simple advice. “if you feel you need to catch up on sleep on the weekend, its better for your body clock to try and go to sleep a little earlier and get up a little later, rather than have a big lie-in in the morning:”
The paper, Sociodemographic and behavioural correlates of social jetlag in Australian adults: Results from the 2016 National Sleep Health Study, is available to view here: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleep.2018.06.014
For more information and interview requests, contact Lucy Williams on mobile: 0403 753 028.
About Sleep Health Foundation
The Sleep Health Foundation is Australia’s leading advocate for sleep health. The Foundation aims to improve people’s sleep and their lives by promoting healthy sleep, raising awareness of sleep disorders and building partnerships with organisations. Free, independent, expert-reviewed fact sheets on every aspect of sleep are available at www.sleephealthfoundation.org.au.