So Professor Arne Akbar, of University College London, summarised one of the key questions his research intends to answer. As Professor of Immunology, he was one member of a fascinating panel discussion at this year’s Cheltenham Science Festival. He was accompanied on stage by Dr Donald Palmer of the Royal Veterinary College and Professor Thomas von Zglinicki of Newcastle University, with Chair, Dr Suzy Lishman, Vice President of the Royal College of Pathologists.
I attended this discussion on the ageing immune system expecting a physical biological slant and wondering whether I would come away with ideas about diet or exercise that I could perhaps apply. But when someone asked whether there was anything we could do to foster an effective immune system into old age, the answer was resoundingly to avoid excessive stress. Whilst other factors such as diet were important, and genes and chance played the over-riding role in how well each of us will age, stress was top of the list of damaging lifestyle factors. As I understand it, the mechanism seems to be that high levels of stress hormones lead to inflammation which leads to a lowered immunity. It may be seen in cold sores, frequent colds and ultimately many more serious illnesses especially as we get old older. It can shorten our lifespan, and lead to miserable final years.
As an occupational psychologist, I am interested in stress, well-being and successful transitions, including ageing, in the working population. Many of my clients are in their forties and fifties, trying their level best to keep a successful career and family going whilst staying mentally and physically healthy. Most of them expect and hope for a long and active life. Many of them are also stressed – and see this as an inevitable aspect of a modern professional job.
Being mentally as well as we can be
This presentation brought home to me more clearly than ever before the link between mental and physical health. Mental ill-health in terms of stress affects us at a cellular level. And yet, so many of us continue to live lifestyles that dismiss the idea of actively looking after our day-to-day mental health.
I meet many clients who are well aware of looking after their physical health, through diet and exercise, with varying degrees of success when trying to fit this into a busy life. Most of us recognise that on-going struggle. But well-established factors relating to mental health, such as social support and connection, sleep and mindfulness, are very often swept aside as we pursue our work related goals and pass our weeks in juggling conflicting demands on our time.
The research is clear. Not only can that make us feel tired and ragged, irritable and worried, it can damage our cells. The very cells whose purpose is to protect us from harm.
My guess is that most of us are really not intending to do that. But somehow our prevailing culture has become one of ignoring the risks that we are running. Or worse, actively promoting behaviour that probably increases the amount of damage we are doing to those vital cells.
Is there a better way?
I think one of the most exciting aspects of the world becoming ever more connected is the synergy that happens when disciplines meet, to bring different perspectives on complicated problems. None of us has the answer on our own any more (if we ever did).
For me, I think that the issue of mental health at work could be one where sociologists, psychologists, economists, accountants and immunologists (to name a few) meet. Along with some designers and engineers perhaps. We probably need to invite others along too. Maybe even politicians.
We need to understand how groups work, how norms of unhelpful behaviour become established and how individuals can strengthen their own resolve and habits to look after themselves, as well as help each other. We need to grapple with how organisations deal with complex demands, and how that filters down to the cellular level of their employees. We need to educate people in how to look after their daily mental health and give them permission and mechanisms to prioritise it (which many organisations don’t, whether by design or accident). We need to know how to design or influence systems to work for our best interests rather than against them.
We need to pause a while and ask good questions. Collectively and individually.
We need to ask ourselves whether there is a better way to do our jobs. A way that is productive, engaging, rewarding, and motivating – and which doesn’t give us an unnecessarily short sell-by date.
Sarah Dale is an occupational psychologist, coach and author. Her self-help book for busy professionals, Keeping Your Spirits Up, is available on Kindle or as paperback, and her next book, Bolder and Wiser, will be published in the autumn. You can follow Sarah on twitter on @creatingfocus.