What is Immune Fitness and what employers can do to support it?

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One of the key outcomes of the COVID 19 global pandemic is that we are all more aware of our immune system, something we possibly wouldn’t have given a second thought to previously. You are familiar with the headline “how to support your immune system”, however another topic that is gaining momentum is ‘Immune Fitness’.

What is it and what can you do to achieve it?

What is Immune Fitness?

Immune Fitness can be defined as the capacity of the body to adapt to external challenges (such as infections) by activating an appropriate immune response, to promote health, and prevent and resolve disease, which is essential for improving quality of life.(1) The ‘fitness’ of our immune system is essential, as a more resilient immune system has a positive effect on lifelong health.

Why should employers be aware of immune fitness?

A resilient immune system is one that deals with a challenge to our system effectively and efficiently, but in a way that does not cause damage or illness. So, it’s all about the immune system being in balance and reacting when required but not overreacting either.

In 2019, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) showed that absenteeism for Irish organisations remained a challenge, with over 20% reporting an increase in absenteeism rates in the previous year.(2)

25% of organisations reported an absenteeism rate of between 6% and 9%, which poses a significant cost for companies.(2)

When we consider the statistics on absenteeism in the workplace, it makes sense to support your employees to avoid sickness.

In this blog, we are proposing that improving the resilience of your employees immune system through workplace initiatives would result in a positive effect on these absenteeism figures.

What factors influence immune fitness that employers can support?

There are many factors that influence the fitness of our immune system. As individuals, we can influence some of these factors, to provide ourselves with the possibility of better protection. Although it’s important to note, that the immune system status is also impacted by stress, physiological state (e.g. pregnancy), medication, smoking and alcohol consumption to mention a few.

As employers we can support these individuals with initiatives and here is why:

Age as we grow older, the functioning of our immune system declines resulting in a slower, less effective and efficient defence system, which increases the risk of getting ill.(3)

Physical fitness – research shows that regular physical activity increases the resistance of the immune system, because during exercise the inflammatory responses and stress hormones are decreased.(4)

Diet can influence our immune response. It provides a source of energy in the form of macronutrients like carbohydrate, fat and protein to fuel the system and the building blocks required to maintain the system. Certain vitamins and minerals like vitamin A, D and Zinc are needed to regulate the immune response. Finally, indirectly through support of the gut microbiota.(5)

Macronutrients, vitamins and minerals are all needed to support your immune system.

As an employer is there anything I can do?

The simple answer is yes, there are many ways that you can encourage your employees to support their immune fitness.

Here’s a reminder of how you can aid immune fitness in your current wellbeing plans:

1. Raise awareness of the benefits of healthy eating and how it supports your immune system

– Provide information, sessions and courses on the benefits of healthy eating for your immune system.

– Circulate information on posters, leaflets, intranets, screen savers, payslips and employee team meetings.

– Hold healthy eating promotional events with themed healthy eating weeks or days. (e.g., breakfast ideas, getting more vegetables, or choosing brown pasta & bread etc.)

2. Make it easy for someone to eat healthier by providing supports to make a healthier choice.

– Provide food storage and preparation areas e.g., cool storage areas for lunchboxes and snacks.

– Provide access to water in meeting and training rooms. Offer fruit snack options instead of biscuits at meetings.

– If canteen or catering is available, increase the availability and options for healthier choices e.g. introduce healthy options in vending machines like fruits, nuts etc.

3. Promote a culture of physical exercise in the workplace.

– Encourage employees to take time during their lunch breaks to get in a walk or run.

– Encourage a policy of ‘no meetings’ during lunch times.

– Create a “get fitter” working group, encouraging employees to log their steps or kms walked/ran as part of a competition.

Encouraging your employees to take regular exercise during their lunch breaks will help support their immune system.

References:

  1. Van de Loo AJAE, Kerssemakers N, Scholey A, Garssen J, Kraneveld AD, Verster JC. Perceived Immune Fitness, Individual Strength and Hangover Severity. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 2020;17:4039.
  2. CIPD. HR Practices in Ireland Survey 2019. Dubin: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development; 2019.
  3. Laupèze, B., Del Giudice, G., Doherty, M.T. et al. Vaccination as a preventative measure contributing to immune fitness. npj Vaccines 6, 93 (2021).
  4. Chastin, S.F.M., Abaraogu, U., Bourgois, J.G. et al. Effects of Regular Physical Activity on the Immune System, Vaccination and Risk of Community-Acquired Infectious Disease in the General Population: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med 51, 1673–1686 (2021).
  5. Calder P. C. (2013). Feeding the immune system. The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 72(3), 299–309.