Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Feb. 4, 2021.
With winter in full swing, you may be tempted to work from home to avoid a chilly commute—but could that isolation from other people actually weaken your immune system? Here's what the experts say, Amanda Mull reports for The Atlantic.
Mull writes that, when she joined The Atlantic after years of working from home, she once again had to hop onto the subway every morning—and she worried about the consequences of surrounding herself with so many people and, potentially, so many germs. "Silently, I braced for the cold I feared that might bring, should my stay-at-home immune system not adjust quickly enough to its get-on-the-train future," she writes.
Sure enough, Mull soon caught a cold. But according to the experts she interviewed, the reason probably wasn't that her immune system had weakened from the lack of exposure.
According Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Medical Center, while there's some "mixed" evidence for the idea that isolation from irritants may weaken the immune system, a far likelier issue is simply that Mull had more opportunities to fall sick once she surrounded herself with more people.
As Morse said, "If you are a hermit and presumably have no contact with people, you are at very low risk" of a cold—but once you leave the hermit life behind, your risk increases exponentially.
In fact, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that an organization's work-from-home policy can help keep its workers healthy—if it prevents sick and contagious workers from showing up at the office.
According to Katherine Harmon, senior director of category intelligence at WorldAware, "Making sure that people stay out an appropriate amount of time when they're feeling ill is probably the single most important thing a company can do." She added, "If somebody says they're sick and they know they can work from home, there's less of a risk of 'presenteeism,' which is when people who are sick come to work anyway because they're obligated to be there."
The takeaway? If you think traveling via subway is building up your immune system, "I hate to burst your bubble, but you have the same likelihood of coming down with the sniffles on any given day as anyone else who ventures along a similar path," Mull writes.
But she adds, "[I]f you want to stay healthy during cold and flu season and help others do the same, the answer is pretty simple: Stay home when you don't feel well if at all possible, and bully (OK, 'encourage') your sniffly co-workers to do the same" (Mull, The Atlantic, 11/1/18).
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