No Evidence to Link Work Stress and Cancer

There is an almost intuitive relationship, in the minds of ordinary Americans, between work related stress, and the onset of cancer. However the evidence of this relationship is simply not there. In fact, a recent overarching analysis of all the studies into the stress to cancer link found no substantial contribution from stress at work to the occurrence of any cancers.


In a study putting risk numbers to many different variables that may or may not increase a person’s chances of contracting cancer, stress at work, actually showed a small lowering of the hazard ratio for cancer, at 0.97. The link between work stress and different particular cancers were spread across a 14% reduction to a 17% increase. However none of the hazard ratios was significant enough to establish a definitive link. The meta-review of studies was done by Finnish researchers and the results are online through the BMJ.

The overwhelming conclusion is that:

“job strain is unlikely to be an important risk factor for cancer overall or for colorectal, lung, breast, and prostate cancers. This does not preclude other types of psychosocial stress … or physiological stress from being linked to cancer risk.”

The conclusions went on to note that cutting out or decreasing work stress while certainly improving the psychological and physical state of individual people at work, and the working population as a whole, it was not shown to have any significant role in easing the cancer burden as a whole.

Nine out of ten cancers are closely linked with a range of factors in the everyday living environment of the sufferers. Most of these factors are consequential with our lifestyles. The top three are exposure to sunlight, or more specifically ultraviolet radiation, viral infections and of course tobacco usage. There is little or no evidence, according to this overview of other studies, for causal links in other environment factors such as breast augmentation and psychological reactions.

Socially induced stress may be a link further back along the causal chain to cancer. The plausible rationale behind this hypothesis is that stress is known to cause and feed chronic inflammation, which creates receptive tissue based environment for the development of tumors. Stress may also be the springboard for such as increased alcohol consumption, comfort eating and smoking. All of which skyrocket the risks of cancer development.

The conclusion is clear. There is only limited evidence to support the view that stress, no matter the origin causes cancer. Two entirely separate studies of occupational pressure linked to breast cancer came out with polar opposite conclusions.

The Finnish study did a meta-analysis of 12 different European studies. The studies were carried out in the 23 years from 1985. Around 180 thousand people answered questionnaires about their work, their lifestyles and demographics. Around 116 thousand ended up being analysed further. Work stress was measured in the ‘Job Content Questionnaire and the Demand-Control Questionnaire’. No other forms of stress were investigated.

Claire Al-Aufi

Claire Al-Aufi is a contributing author for Hive Health Media who provides updates on health and fitness news.

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