Autumn brings cooler mornings, cosy clothing, comforting soup, and the beginning of the cold and flu season.
This year, many workplaces are also navigating a safe return to the office for their employees. This may involve adapting to a changing COVID landscape or managing employee anxiety and fatigue due to recent local and global events.
These combined factors make it important for employers to adopt strategies to support employee wellbeing, including immune health.
The immune system plays a protective role to defend our bodies against infections. Like the workplace, it comprises of interconnected systems that rely on each other to function optimally.
Researchers are still exploring the link between our immune system and the impact of our lifestyle. However, adopting healthy habits that improve overall wellbeing may also help keep our immune system strong.
To find out more, we asked three experts to discuss the role of nutrition, stress, and health hygiene on employee wellbeing.
The guts of it
Jono Steedman, Principal Dietitian and Director, Bite Me Nutrition
Did you know seventy to eighty per cent of our body’s immune cells are present in our gut?
The small and large intestines, which form part of the gastrointestinal tract, are home to trillions of bacteria, which live together as an ecosystem. Scientists have found links between a healthy colony of gut bacteria and improvements in our immune system, metabolism, and mental health.
Jono is the first to admit that it is stereotypical for a dietitian to recommend eating more fruit and vegetables, but it’s for a good reason! Fruits and vegetables provide antioxidants that bolster the body’s immune response.
Jono recommends encouraging employees to increase nutrient-rich food, including:
- Vitamin C - citrus fruit and cruciferous vegetables
- Zinc - fish, legumes, nuts, seeds, meat, eggs, and dark chocolate (responsibly)
- Vitamin D - eggs, mushrooms, fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, or sardines
Jono shares that the single best change someone can make to improve their gut health is to increase the range of plant food in their diet, along with grains, herbs, and spices.
Be the river, not the rock
Arthur Papagiannis, Psychologist, Founder and Managing Director of AP Psychology & Consulting Services
The immune systems and our stress responses are closely interlinked.
Arthur advises that our fight and flight response can be activated during periods of stress. When this is for a short burst of time, our bodies bounce back.
When this extends to weeks, months or years of chronic stress, high levels of stress hormones, cortisol, adrenalin and inflammation may compromise our immune system. This may present for employees as fatigue, lowered concentration or social withdrawal, and physical ailments.
Arthur emphasised that it’s important to note that not all stress is bad for you. The workplace can help achieve a healthy balance by creating psychologically safe workplaces. This may include applying a systemic lens to understand risk factors, including psychosocial hazards, work design factors e.g., role clarity, work demands, etc., and leadership capability.
Arthur encourages employees to commit to one thing that will make a difference, including:
- taking a ten-minute walk to reset
- practising mindfulness
- talking to their leader about workload and other work-related impacts
- Connecting with their EAP or GP for support
The balancing act
Dr Jessica Choong, Medical Doctor, Senior Medical Advisor Medibank, Chair of the Health Research Governance Committee. Medibank
Our immune system is a complex system that works at its best when it can maintain balance.
Jessica advises that there are several ways we can help the immune system do its job of defending the body from infections by adopting safe hygiene measures in the workplace. These include providing:
- adequate workspace ventilation
- alcohol-based sanitiser
- clean work surfaces
- encouraging unwell employees to stay home
Workplace vaccination programs also play an essential role. Each year, different strains of influenza can circulate through the population. It takes, on average, two weeks to recover from the flu, which can place pressure on the workplace and customers.
Jessica also encourages employees to maintain a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, eating nutritious foods, adequate sleep, limiting alcohol consumption, and quitting smoking.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to wellbeing, the workplace can proactively implement preventative steps to strengthen employee immune health. To support your workplace to function at its best, contact email@example.com to learn about Medibank’s nutrition programs, mental health strategies or workplace vaccination programs.