Immune systems

Most experts feel that the H1N1 influenza virus has peaked and flu activity is on the decline. But if you think your employees are no longer at risk for colds, flu and other seasonal illnesses think again.

For one thing, the seasonal flu, a viral infection of the upper and lower respiratory tract that infects 10 percent to 20 percent of Americans each year, has not yet hit. The seasonal flu and other flu like illnesses cost employers millions of dollars annually in lost productivity and absenteeism.

Pandemic plans, vaccines and even strategically planned wellness programs all help in keeping employees healthy; but all of these efforts can be futile if the body’s No. 1 line of defense, the immune system, is compromised.

The power of the immune system is greatly underestimated. Most people are under the mistaken impression that they have little control over affliction by germs, viruses and other illnesses. The fact is that what happens with our health is largely within our control.

Why does one person get the flu and not another? This question can best be answered through the following scenario.

There are four people in a room and through some unexplained occurrence, a morbid virus penetrates the space. All four people are exposed. One person becomes gravely ill and dies. A second person suffers serious symptoms but survives. The third person experiences mild symptoms and recovers. And the fourth person never becomes infected.

What made the difference in the outcome for each of these people? Was it chance, genetics or just plain good fortune? To a great degree, the answer lies in their individual immune systems. The immune system is a complex network of organs, tissues and cells that protects us from attack by germs and other disease-causing substances that can invade our body. Through a series of steps called the immune response, the immune system attacks these invaders and keeps them from harming us. We tend to think of the immune system only as it relates to colds and flu, when in fact a healthy immune system also protects us against more serious diseases like heart disease and cancer. Most experts feel that even diseases like asthma, allergies and certain types of arthritis are the result of a weakened immune system.

Minimize workplace stress

Whether it is H1N1, the seasonal flu or more serious diseases, employers can help their employees boost their immune systems. This may mean a change in corporate culture. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates that stress affects 40 percent of American workers and is the number one cause of worker disabilities. Workplace stress is recognized as a key contributor in 75 percent to 90 percent of all primary care doctor visits. The short-term effects of workplace stress are seen in common disorders such as back pain, musculoskeletal problems, headaches, loss of sleep and energy and emotional distress. Because stress weakens our immune system, it can eventually lead to serious illness like heart disease and cancer.

In their widely acclaimed book, “Freedom Inc.,” Brian Carney and Isaac Getz reference research showing that stressful work incidents are even more damaging to our well-being and health than major stressors in our personal lives. It isn’t always the workload that causes the majority of stress. Among the workplace constraints and interpersonal conflicts that are common but that often are ignored:

  • Someone interfered with your work.
  • Others took resources or information you need for your job.
  • Someone took credit for your work.
  • Someone made a negative comment about your intelligence or competence.
  • You were a target of rumors or gossip.
  • You were excluded from a work-related or social meeting.
  • You were given the silent treatment.
  • Others failed to warn you about impending dangers.
  • You were denied a raise or promotion without being given a valid reason. 

The authors suggest that an important factor in reducing workplace stress is the perceived control that employees have over their work. “Change the bureaucratic culture and give people real, even perceived control over their work, stop telling them how to do their jobs, and the stress will go down. This is equally important for people at the bottom of the hierarchy. Absenteeism will go down; hidden costs will go down. Engagement will go up,” they wrote.

Get a nutritional boost

Workplace stress is just one factor that is harmful to the immune system. Lifestyle habits are critical as well. Healthy eating isn’t just about weight control. Foods like sugar, highly refined grains, and processed foods are particularly damaging to your immune system.  They cause inflammation in the tissues, cells and organs. It is becoming increasingly clear that a lot of illnesses, including heart disease, many cancers and Alzheimer’s disease are influenced in large part by chronic inflammation. Stress, lack of exercise, genetic predisposition and other lifestyle factors can all promote inflammation, but poor diet is perhaps the main contributor, and the ideal place to begin addressing inflammation.

Develop good sleep habits

If you aren’t getting enough sleep, you will be at increased risk for a virus.  A person who is well-rested will be more likely to have a stronger immune response to viruses than someone who has not gotten enough sleep. Many people are so sleep deprived that they don’t notice that they are not functioning optimally. People who sleep for six or fewer hours every night may be accumulating a “sleep debt” that affects their normal cognitive abilities, and they may be so sleep-deprived that they don’t notice their decreased abilities. Sleep quality is as important as sleep quantity. Each person requires a different amount of sleep each night. The best way to figure out how much sleep you need is by considering how you feel during the day. One of the best ways to ensure that you get good sleep is to remove any of the obstacles of sleep that would create disruptions, like noise, light, extreme temperatures and stress.


Don’t underestimate the importance of exercise for increasing your resistance to illness. Regular, moderate exercise can reduce your risk for respiratory illness by boosting your immune system. But be careful not to overdo it. Over-exercising can actually place more stress on the body, which can suppress the immune system. Consider a walk in place of a strenuous workout if you are coming down with something. The rise in body temperature caused by excessive exercise can create the right environment for a virus.

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