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Stylist Sleep Diaries: How I stay sane when night shifts play havoc with my body clock

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Lucy Dickens
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How well do you sleep? In a new series of diary entries from women across the UK, Stylist is exploring one of our most prolific obsessions…

Here, a journalist and sub-editor working at a national newspaper explains the soothing ritual she uses to help her get to sleep - even when night shifts mean her body clock is completely confused.

Name: Lucy Dickens

Age: 24

Profession: Journalist and Sub Editor

Ideal amount of sleep: 8-9 hours

Actual amount of sleep: 7 hours

Describe your sleep in three words: varied, unstructured, precious

Rate your sleep out of 10: 7/10

Let it be known: sleep is very important to me. Although I’m a night owl by nature, my love for the serenity of the twilight hours in no way overshadows my need to get at least seven hours of shut-eye before I’m ready to face the day. I’m consistently irritable and find it hard to concentrate when I haven’t had a good night’s rest, but this isn’t always possible. My work routine – or lack thereof – makes it pretty tricky to get into a healthy sleeping pattern and keep my brain from going haywire with tiredness and anxiety every now and again.

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When I’m working a night shift, I’ll leave my house at 5pm, work 6pm-2.30am, and then be home by around 3am. On a day shift I’ll leave my house at 7am, work 8am-5pm, and then be home by around 6pm. Every week is different, so sometimes I’ll be doing three of one shift pattern and two of the other, or sometimes a string of five night shifts in a row, followed by five day shifts in a row, and so on.

The amount of sleep I get is not really the problem; rather, it’s the small issue of a completely bonkers sleep schedule in which I’m conked out by 10.30pm one day and on my lunch break at 11pm the next. Working for a national newspaper in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, I knew what I was getting myself into. However, doing a combination of night shifts and day shifts – sometimes with only a few hours in between – has forced me to find some unusual ways to get into sleep mode when my body clock is about as confused as my builder’s tea-drinking grandad in a Hackney coffee shop. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are upsides to working the hours I do. Some of you ‘normals’ can only dream of the glamour of my life when I’m on nights. There are no queues at the post office as I breeze in at midday to collect armfuls of ASOS parcels. There’s loads of free equipment when I visit the gym, and the empty trains on my commute mean there’s a seat for me and a seat for my skinny vanilla latte. That’s all lovely. But feeling constantly confused about what time of day it is, is not.

Shift work can be tough on your body clock, which is wired to respond to external triggers like sunlight and darkness, which make you feel alert or sleepy accordingly. I’ll often struggle to sleep in the late morning when the sun is forcing its way through my blinds – not because I’m not tired, but because my brain is practically shouting ‘It’s time to get up!’

The lack of routine is also difficult when it comes to organising my social life. Finding time to see my boyfriend, family and friends when our schedules coincide is a task in itself, but staying awake and alert for those few precious hours is even harder.

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The line-up of Lucy’s pre-sleep beauty routine

Like I said, night-time is the best time for me. I’m at my most productive at night, so working in the evening suits me well. Until it’s time to sleep, that is. When I get home at 3am, after battling through hordes of late-night revelers to get a seat on the night bus, I’m in the mood for comfort food, Netflix and maybe a bit of online retail therapy. I’m still wired and alert from work, and my brain is not in wind-down mode.

However, I know that I need to try to get to bed ASAP or risk being woken up far too early by the sun/my clarinet-playing neighbour/the postman. My three housemates are usually up and getting ready for work between 7am and 8am, too – they try to be as quiet as possible, but they’re only human. So there are a few things I always do to get in the zone. As the times will always change for these, I’ve shown how long each step of my routine takes.

20 minutes: When I get home from work I am almost always hungry, having eaten a ‘lunch’ of pasta or sandwiches hours beforehand, so I normally have something comforting like a decaf tea with some buttery toast. I am both a tea addict and a goody two-shoes, so decaf seems like a reasonable compromise at 3am. Plus, according to the experts, anything with warm milk in it is a surefire way to get you feeling drowsy; so I make my tea extra milky.

I also like to change into comfy clothes as soon as I get home – usually some leggings and a big, cosy jumper that feels like a warm hug. I’ll also light a candle with a soothing scent. At the moment I’m obsessed with a Yankee Candle that my boyfriend bought me, called Lake Sunset (don’t ask me what that smells like; all I can tell you is that it is good).

10 minutes: Next I start my skincare routine. The ritual of cleansing, toning and moisturising my face is really therapeutic and makes me feel ready for bed. I love Cowshed products, particularly because they often use natural ingredients with calming scents like chamomile and lavender. First, I remove my make-up with their Lavender Gentle Cleanser, making sure I’ve taken everything off (I’m convinced that if I sleep with any make-up on I’ll wake up with the skin of a teenage boy). I follow this with the Chamomile Refreshing Toner and finish off by massaging the Neroli Nourishing Daily Moisturiser into my cheeks and under my eyes.

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20 minutes: I love chuckling at memes or bingeing on shows as much as the next person, but I prefer to read for a while before I sleep to give my eyes a break from the dreaded blue light. I love the escapism of fiction, but recently I’ve enjoyed reading poems. I’m currently halfway through a collection that my friend brought me back from a trip to America, called There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker. A blasphemous title, obviously, but the poems are hilarious and smart. They offer some food for thought, but I know I won’t be up half the night wondering what’s going to happen next like I might after reading the latest psychological thriller. They’re also snappy enough to let me close the book and just go to sleep – something I find difficult to do when I’m really getting into a novel. 

Lucy’s poetry book, notebook and planner

Five minutes: The final and most important thing I do before bed – whether it’s 4am or 10pm – is to clear my mind of any little niggles or anxieties that could preoccupy me when I’m trying to fall asleep. I have a bad memory when it comes to making plans and remembering the things I need to do, so I make notes on my phone or take screenshots throughout the day. Then at night I’ll transfer them to my diary. Because I like to avoid blue light at night, I’ll usually transfer these notes before I start reading, then put my phone on charge and try not to look at it again before I go to sleep. 

When it comes to writing, I have a beautiful Kate Spade planner that I treated myself to at the beginning of the year. It’s as pretty as it is practical. I don’t think I’d get as much joy from writing in a boring, lined notebook, so it’s an indulgence that I allow myself. 

I write to-do lists for the next day or upcoming week, too. Having all my commitments recorded in one place makes me feel on top of everything and allows me to clear my head, and I feel myself physically relax after committing thoughts to paper. Sometimes I’ll write things down that I hadn’t even realised were bothering me. I sit on my bed while I read and write in my planner, but I don’t get under the covers until I’m ready to go to sleep.

The ritual of blowing out my candle and switching my bedside lamp off let’s me know it’s time for sleep, even if it’s light outside. I do have a blackout blind in my bedroom but some light still gets in, which can throw me off a bit if I’m trying to sleep in the daytime. I have two duvets on my bed for extra cosiness, and my mattress is my most prized possession – Ikea’s finest! It’s firm but really comfortable and spring-free. 

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Generally, I fall asleep quickly (within five minutes), but I live in fear of waking up before I’ve got my seven hours in because once I’m up, I’m up. I’ll inevitably look at my phone and then the strangeness of being in bed at 1pm will make me feel guilty, even though I know it’s necessary. This happens about twice a week.

I always have an alarm set on my phone for eight to nine hours after I go to sleep, because I’m wary of sleeping for too long and feeling worse for it. The amount of sleep I get is one of the few things in my control, even if the time of day is not.

I think the non-stop nature of our lifestyles, where there is always another email to read or WhatsApp message to respond to, means many of us are finding it more and more difficult to switch off – hence the rise in popularity of meditation, journaling and other mind-focusing activities. I think sleep should be a haven. Marking out my bedtime (whenever that might be) as a chance to recharge without things hanging over my head definitely helps me to keep it together, even when the lack of routine starts to feel overwhelming.

Eye mask courtesy of Oliver Bonas

Images courtesy of Lucy Dickens