6 mins. read

How to manage shift work and cancer

Managing Shift Work and Cancer | Perci Health

Key Takeaways

  • Shift work doesn’t cause cancer: However, there have been some studies that have indicated that working shifts, and particularly night shifts, can make it more difficult to look after your general health.  
  • Explore changes that can be made to your role: Talk to your employer to see what options are available concerning your role. You might be able to change your work pattern, opt for reduced hours, or request other reasonable adjustments.
  • Look after yourself outside of work too: Whilst adjustments at work might help you deal with your shifts, making sure you get a good night’s sleep, have adequate rest, and are eating nourishing food is also important.

Shift work can be a challenge on its own, but when you also have cancer, this working pattern can be even more difficult. This guide provides tips for working with cancer when you do shift work, gives advice on ways you can get support at work, and includes suggestions for things you can do outside of work to ensure you are looking after your wellbeing as best as possible.  

Does shift work cause cancer?

Studies have been conducted to establish whether shift work causes cancer and the findings generally demonstrate that it doesn’t. In 2016, a meta-analysis found no connection between night shift work and breast cancer. In 2020, another meta-analysis that used data from 57 other studies and included at least nine different types of cancer found no increased risk with night shift work.

However, what some studies have suggested is that shift work has adverse effects on health that can then make people more susceptible to cancer. For example, those that work night shifts tend to feel more tired so are less inclined to use their spare time to exercise and find it more difficult to eat a balanced diet.

If you work shifts and are living with cancer, there are things you can do to support your wellbeing in and outside of the workplace:

Ask for flexibility

If you want to continue working during your cancer treatment but recognise that shift work might make that difficult, ask your employer for flexibility in your role and working hours. It might be helpful to set up a meeting with your employer so you can chat about what options are available. FInd out more about speaking to your employer about your cancer diagnosis in our guide.

 Flexible working arrangements might include:

  • Time off for appointments
  • The option to work from home
  • Set core hours with the ability to complete remaining hours at any time
  • Paid leave
  • Unpaid leave
  • Using accrued holiday

Reduce your hours

We understand that when you receive a cancer diagnosis, you may worry about your ability to work and your finances. Some people may want to continue working and some may find that they are no longer able to or that they need to take a step back to focus on their treatment.

Depending on your circumstances, it might be an option to reduce your hours, even if just temporarily. Speak to your manager about the available possibilities. For instance, you might be able to do shorter shifts or do fewer days each week.

If you are concerned about how cancer might affect your income, there are charities and organisations, such as Macmillan, that can advise you on what financial support might be available.

Request reasonable adjustments

There are aspects of employment law that cover employees with cancer. In England, Scotland, and Wales, this is the Equality Act 2010 and in Northern Ireland, it is the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. These pieces of legislation class anyone with cancer as having a disability meaning that they are protected from discrimination and unfair treatment.

It also means that your employer is required to make reasonable adjustments to your role and working environment so that you can continue work should you wish to. What these reasonable adjustments are will depend on the type of work you do and the size of the company you work for amongst other things, but often encompass changing the scope of responsibilities, extending breaks, providing equipment, and amendments to working hours.

If there is anything that you feel would make it easier for you to continue working shifts whilst navigating your diagnosis and treatment, speak to your employer. Most employers will try to be as accommodating as they can.

Nourish your body

It can be hard to eat fresh, home-cooked meals when you work shifts, particularly when you work through the night and the times you would normally eat breakfast, lunch and dinner don’t align with your working hours. When you have cancer, it can also be harder to eat due to a loss of appetite and side effects from treatment such as sickness or a change in your taste and sense of smell.

However, fuelling your body with nourishing foods can help fight fatigue and support faster recovery after treatments. Try to eat protein-rich foods and nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables and dairy products.

Create a good sleeping environment

Living with cancer can cause fatigue but adding shift work into the mix can mean you may feel even more exhausted. That’s why it’s really important to create an environment at home that promotes a good night’s sleep. By ensuring your body is well rested, you can be more prepared for shift work, especially if your shifts change regularly or you are working unsociable hours. To create a good sleeping environment:

  • Make sure the room you are sleeping in is dark: Use heavy, lined curtains or a blackout blind to block out natural light from entering the windows and turn off any electronic devices that have a light.
  • Reduce noise: Shut the room’s door to block sound from other parts of the house. You can even wear earplugs if other people are at home and awake when you are sleeping. Put your phone on silent if you can, or if not, at least turn off notifications.
  • Keep the room cool: If your room is too hot, it can make it more difficult to fall asleep and stay in a deep sleep. Before bedtime, try opening the windows to let trapped heat escape or use a quiet fan if the room is still too warm. In warmer months, also try sleeping with a low-tog duvet or just a sheet.

If you are going to talk to your employer about your shift work and the support available to you, why not also ask them to take a look at Perci Health. Our platform allows companies to support their employees with cancer by accessing our virtual care clinic and speaking to a number of cancer specialists online. Find out more about how we support those coping with cancer.