To test whether chronic work stress is accompanied by altered immune functioning, changes in lymphocyte subsets and in lymphocyte production of cytokines were examined in reaction to acute psychosocial stress. Work stress was measured according to Siegrist's effort-reward-imbalance (ERI) model. ERI reflects stress due to a lack of reciprocity between costs and gains at work. Overcommitment (OC) is conceptualized as a dysfunctional coping pattern mainly characterized by the inability to withdraw from work obligations. Fifty-five healthy teachers (34 women, 21 men, mean age 50.0 ± 8.47 years) were exposed to a standardized laboratory stressor (Trier Social Stress Test). Lymphocyte subset counts and lymphocyte production of tumor-necrosis-factor (TNF)-α, interferon (IFN)-γ, interleukin (IL)-2, -4, -6 and -10 were measured before and after challenge. High levels of ERI and OC were associated with lower natural killer (NK) cell (CD16+/56+) numbers whereas high levels of OC were related to a lower increase in T-helper cells (CD4+) after stress. Furthermore, subjects with higher ERI showed an overall increased pro-inflammatory activity, with higher TNF-α production at both time points and elevated pre-stress IL-6 production. IL-10 production decreased with higher ERI after stress. The ratios of TNF-α/IL-10 and IL-6/IL-10 were significantly increased in subjects high on ERI. Finally, OC was associated with higher IL-2 production post-stress. The present findings suggest a dampened innate immune defence, reflected in lower NK cell numbers together with an increased pro-inflammatory activity in teachers high on ERI and OC. Such pathways could partly be responsible for the increased vulnerability for stress-related diseases in individuals suffering from chronic work stress.
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