Many of us were shocked to learn working the graveyard shift will kill you.

Nov. 30, 2007 — Working the night shift may cause cancer,
according to a report published in The Lancet. The report comes from a
team of 44 scientists in 10 countries commissioned by the World Health
Organization’s International Agency on Cancer Research.
They report “limited” evidence of a connection between cancer and night
shift work in people.

That evidence included a higher rate of breast
cancer in female nurses who work night shifts…. those studies
provided “sufficient evidence” of a connection between circadian rhythm
disruption and cancer, states the report.
The scientists concluded that “shift work that involves circadian
rhythm disruption is probably carcinogenic to humans,” write Kurt
Straif, MD, and colleagues. They note that shift work may raise cancer
risk by suppressing production of melatonin, a chemical involved in the
circadian rhythm.

I know a lot of people who earn their livings at night.

They work in
radio, fight fires, police the street, collect garbage, work in
hospitals and deliver mail.
The thought we might be unwittingly shortening our lives because of the
schedule we work — and destroying our circadian rhythms in the process
— is a great concern.
I understand we cannot catch up on lost sleep and every hour we miss is
a dagger in our coffins. Reflecting back on our lives we are inevitably
confronted by all those graveyard temptations.

For several years in my youth I worked overnight shifts on the radio
three nights a week while attending school on a full-time day schedule.
I never really slept for half the week and even a quick power nap could
not bring me back from the dead.

My situation is hardly unique — there are many young people who work
and attend school and rarely sleep — but I can’t help wondering if we
are killing ourselves in our youth in order to achieve a comfortable retirement many of us will never experience?


  1. That’s a good question, Anne, and I’m not sure of the answer. I, too, don’t sleep much but I’m not an insomniac in that I can always sleep when I want to… but I think the report dealt with stress on the job and that stress interfering with the naturally occurring circadian rhythms.

  2. I know a lot of people who are night birds. As long as they sleep during the day they should be fine. Yes, they’re going against the mainstream circadian rhythms — and those night folk who became day people did much better in the long run in my experience — but as long as you aren’t stressing out you should be able to manage any damage.

  3. I seem to have the worst of both worlds. I like to get up early but at the same time I have a hard time bringing myself to bed except on Shabbos, that beautiful day of rest. Sometimes I’ll even get a nice two hour nap on Shabbos afternoon.

  4. Hi Gordon!
    Yes, that seems to be the current condition for many in our station. I hate the idea of missing out on something — I’m yet another casualty of the 24 hour news cycle, I guess.
    I usually get to bed around 1:00am or so and most days I’m up around 4:30am — so it can be a vicious circle.
    I do try a power nap during the day if I can afford one. I used to view naps as a sign of weakness but now I seem them as a necessary business expense.

  5. Interesting to know. I am thinking of becoming a police officer so I would be working night shifts. The scientists did only find a ‘limited’ connection. That does not mean cause and effect. It may be that people working night shifts are for some reason more prone to cancer. Maybe they are more likely to be smokers, caner causing. But it is interesting to note.

  6. Hi Curtis!
    It’s interesting how the new hires always get the worst shifts. One would think it makes more sense to cover all shifts with a varying amount of experience in order to better ensure a cross-section of basic competency and experience.
    Good luck on your police officer career!
    Here’s a longer article that drives even deeper links into the dangers of overnight working:

  7. Two of my children have worked shifts in their time – it leaves them wrecked and unable to concentrate for weeks afterwards.
    The deadliest catch is a fascinating program – my son introduced me to that too !

  8. Nicola!
    Yes! Working overnights leaves us Zombies. It is a terrible mind-altering state and driving home after a long overnight shift can be a harrowing experience. I hope your children never have to work them again!
    Hey, that’s neat you have Deadliest Catch in the UK! Sig is my favorite captain. He’s truly an uncanny talent who is able to sense the best fishing grounds.

  9. I’m sorry, but what a load of rubbish that report is!! There appears to be a complete disconnect between the illness and the nature of the work.
    Has it occurred that most people on shift work are blue collar workers in lower level jobs. Harder physical labour, possibly in an unfriendly environment surrounded by industrial or social toxins.
    The Lancet article appears to be nothing more than scare mongering with no regard for actual cause and effect. Perhaps they need to send their journalists on some critical thinking courses.
    None of this is to deny that there _may_ be a link, but on the evidence presented there really is nothing to back that up.
    Mike (who has done his share of shift work in the past…)

  10. That’s an interesting point, Mike. I think more research will reveal deeper connections on this matter or entirely disassociate the cause and effect.

  11. Not sure about the cancer report, David but somehow I still remember my own share of doing graveyard shifts while still working in the hotel industry. It left me with a feeling of disorientation throughout the day, not forgetting the almost non-existence social life as the rest of supposedly resting hours were spent sleeping.

  12. Yes, Hanie, that’s it! In order to make the graveyard work you have to sleep all day and, unfortunately, you can’t mail a letter or see the doctor or care for your kids very well if you’re asleep during daylight.
    So people take fitful naps in order to remain a mainstay in the mainstream and it is that conflict, I believe, that is killing us.

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