In this episode, we discuss:
- Julia’s background as a labor and employment lawyer
- The problems with the hyper-capitalist American work culture, including unreasonable demands on workers, being chronically understaffed, and the lack of strong workplace benefits
- How being in a poor work environment can massively impact your health and make it hard to do the things that are good for your health like cooking meals at home, getting outside in nature, exercising, connecting with community, etc.
- Why companies need to own the problem and create systemic changes rather than simply put the onus on the workers to make changes
- What workers can do to increase their well-being at work, including finding purpose, creating community, and knowing their worth, needs, and priorities
- How people with health issues can become empowered at work and legally advocate for themselves
Hey, everybody, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. The two environments in which we spend the most time [are] our work and home, at least for most of us. We talk a lot on the show about steps we can take at home to improve our health, but what about our work environment? Stressful work environments can contribute to health issues like anxiety, depression, digestive issues, migraines, and heart disease. When people don’t feel supported at work, it massively impacts their health and can create burnout.
In addition, workers with pre-existing health issues and disabilities often struggle to keep up in our hyper-capitalist society, and it can be hard for them to find money and time to heal or manage their condition. This week, I’m excited to welcome Julia Stephanides as my guest. Julia is an attorney who works in the employment and civil rights fields. Her goal is to empower people with health issues to navigate the challenging systems in our society [and] to feel supported and confident standing up for themselves at work and at home. She’s represented people with health issues and disabilities and appealed denials of disability benefits for clients with fibromyalgia, arthritis, and autoimmune conditions. She’s also counseled and advocated for clients who were denied medical leave or retaliated against for taking it, and clients who needed accommodations in the workplace.
I confess that I hadn’t thought much about these topics before Julia contacted me. She was a patient at my former clinic, California Center for Functional Medicine, and she has been personally affected by the challenges of navigating the workplace with a serious medical condition. Through her work and personal experience, she’s come to understand the extent to which our work environment impacts our health. This is a topic I really haven’t explored in the past on the show, so I invited Julia to join me to discuss it. I suspect that some of you who listen to the show are affected by the issues we’ll talk about, so I hope this provides some insight and resources that can help. Ready? Let’s dive in.
Chris Kresser: Julia, welcome to the show. It’s such a pleasure to have you.
Julia Stephanides: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here.
Chris Kresser: Maybe you could start by telling the audience a little bit about your background and how you got interested in being an advocate for people who are experiencing health issues in the workplace.
Julia Stephanides: Yeah, absolutely. My story is two-fold. I have my professional experience representing workers, and then I also have my personal journey with health issues that has been very challenging to say the least. After I graduated from law school, I spent three years representing workers [who] were facing discrimination and harassment at work. In doing this work, I saw firsthand how [the] stressful work environments that so many of us are in here in the United States can cause and contribute to health issues like anxiety, depression, digestive issues, migraines, [and] even heart disease. As part of this work, I also represented people who had pre-existing health issues. I appealed denials of disability benefits for clients with arthritis, fibromyalgia, autoimmune conditions, things like that. I counseled and advocated for employees who needed accommodations in the workplace and employees who were denied medical leave or were retaliated against for taking medical leave. [Currently], I still do workers’ rights stuff, but I work in-house at a labor union. That’s how I got introduced to this professionally. At the same time, I was dealing with my own health issues that were very vexing for me. Right when I graduated from law school, I started having mysterious symptoms [like] debilitating vestibular migraines [and] major digestive issues. Conventional doctors kept telling me that everything was normal, “You look great; you’re in perfect health.” And I was like, “I can barely function.”
Chris Kresser: Yeah, heard that story before, right?
Julia Stephanides: Yeah. Luckily, I found the center that you co-founded, the California Center for Functional Medicine, and started getting some answers. I know that personally, I had to do a lot of advocacy for myself in order to juggle being a lawyer and working long hours in a very fast-paced environment and doing work that I really loved, but also taking care of myself and making sure that I could sustain that work. So there was an intersection there where I really understood what my clients at work were going through because I was going through it at the same time.
Chris Kresser: It’s like the wounded healer archetype in medicine, but transferred to a legal setting.
Julia Stephanides: Exactly.
Chris Kresser: You’ve been through [it], you know what it’s like to experience those challenges, and you can be much more empathetic and able to understand what people in that situation are facing. It’s often so true that when we come to our work through the lens of our own personal experience, we have a lot more to bring to it, so it’s great that you ended up here.
Let’s set this up for people who are listening. I mentioned in the introduction that it’s funny because before you approached me about this show, I thought a lot and [had] written a lot about how certain aspects of the workplace affect our health. We tend to sit a lot at work, and moving to a standing desk or at least alternating between a sitting and standing desk can help, or maybe [taking] walking meetings at lunch. But really more along the lines of movements and body mechanics and talking about how to eat well when you’re working in an office or traveling a lot and things of that nature. I confess that I hadn’t really thought as much about the other issues in the workplace that impact health, in part because I’ve never really worked in an office.
Julia Stephanides: Well, lucky you, Chris.
Chris Kresser: Lucky me. That is definitely a privilege. I don’t have the experience of working in an office for a big corporation and being discriminated against or not feeling like I can take care of myself because I’m an employee of this company [that] has these policies that are not aligned with my own needs and health. So I’m really glad that you reached out. And I think it’s obvious, right? If you think about it, most of us spend the majority of our time either at home or at work. A lot of the things I talk about on the show are more directed toward what people are doing in their personal life, and yet, there’s this big gaping hole in the strategy if eight [or] 10 hours or whatever it is are spent in a really unhealthy environment. We’re totally shaped by our environment. This is the problem that you’re addressing, of course.
The Issues with American Work Culture
Julia Stephanides: I couldn’t have said it better myself. That’s exactly what I came to realize, too, is I was doing all the right things. I was eating the Paleo-ish diet. I was exercising every day. I was actually a fitness instructor outside of my legal job. I have a robust mindfulness practice. I’m doing everything you’re supposed to do, and yet I’m not getting better. I started learning more about the impacts of environment on health, and my two main environments that I was in were my home and my workplace. My home was moldy, so there was that. And my workplace was extremely stressful and demanding. I had a certain number of hours that I had to bill every year, so just setting boundaries wasn’t going to cut it.
I realized [that] even if I’m doing all these things, if my nervous system is in this state of fight or flight all the time because of the demands that are being made of me at work and I’m dealing with this mold issue at home, no matter what I do, it’s not going to be enough. So I started thinking more and more about American workplaces, generally. I started talking to friends about it, and so many of my lawyer friends are in very similar situations where they have very healthy habits aside from the fact that they work 12 hours a day. Also, I’m Greek; my family [is] from Cyprus, and they have a very different culture there. Most of Europe does, where people work nine to five, if that, and they spend a lot more time with family. They’re outside a lot more. My cousins in Greece think I’m so weird and that everyone here is so weird. They’re like, “Why do you work all the time?”
Chris Kresser: Yeah, it’s work to live rather than live to work. I lived in Spain for a year and I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Europe, so I’m familiar with that dynamic. [It’s] not healthy, necessarily, but they go out, stay out late, get up in the morning, work, come home, siesta for a few hours, and then go back and pretend to work for a few hours after the siesta. Of course, that was 25 years ago, so probably things have changed since then.
Julia Stephanides: Maybe not that much. Also, I will say I’ve looked at a lot of studies that show that even though they work fewer hours, Denmark has an incredibly high rate of worker productivity. Even though they work nine to 4:30, or nine to five, [and] they have a 37-hour work week, their levels of productivity are shown to be much higher than the [United States], Canada, [and] Japan. It’s not like the number of hours worked correlates with how much is actually getting done.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, I’ve talked about this with Cal Newport on the show. There’s also this study that you’re probably familiar with [where] a company in New Zealand went down to a four-day workweek and saw productivity increase significantly from that decision. So let’s talk a little bit more about that because I’ve definitely mentioned this on the show numerous times and had different guests on to talk about it. I like to talk about it because it’s a really important issue, and I don’t think that those of us who live in the [United States], especially people who have not had the chance to live and work in a different culture, understand that this is not the norm worldwide. It’s a certain way of doing things that has become so deeply entrenched in our society that we think of it as the only way and the normal way, and even the way that it’s done everywhere else. But it’s not. So tell us, [from] your research, what is different about work in the [United States] relative to work in other countries, and even relative to work in the [United States] 50 years ago, which [was] profoundly different than it is now?
Julia Stephanides: Absolutely. This is more going to be anecdotal, as opposed to super research-based, but what I can say [from] representing employees who are in a variety of stressful work environments, and [just] seeing what my generation has gone through, [is] that work is a lot more stressful in the [United States] now than it was 50 years ago. Work in the [United States] is very unique in the demands that are made of employees, and the lack of worker protections and benefits on a federal level [that we have in this country]. And even in many states, [as well]. California happens to have very good benefits, and I practice in California, but a lot of states don’t [have good benefits], and even California’s benefits don’t come close to what people have in most of Europe.
I would say that [one of] the main differences [is] just the number of hours worked here and the expectation that we work those hours. I hear a lot of people [putting] the onus on the individual and [saying that] everyone needs to learn how to set better boundaries. That may be true, but we’re also raised in a culture where we are conditioned by this hyper-capitalist, productivity-is-your-source-of-worth kind of ethos. A lot of people don’t have the option to set boundaries because they may lose their jobs. That may be the expectation. Companies here really do have an “always on” expectation. Especially in law, where you’re expected to be answering emails at all hours. Maybe not [at] 2:00 a.m., but from 6:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m., let’s say.
Chris Kresser: I’ve gotten emails that people have sent at 2:00 a.m. I wasn’t checking [email] at 2:00 a.m., but I’ve seen that people are sending emails at 2:00 a.m. [It’s] not unusual anymore to see that.
Julia Stephanides: Exactly. People are working all the time. The 40-hour work week already [seems] to me like a lot of our lives to spend working. But here, people will say, “Oh, my hours aren’t that bad. It’s like 50 hours a week, maybe 60.” What? That’s like your entire waking day. I think that’s probably the biggest issue. In a lot of other countries, it’s culturally not as socially acceptable or admired to be working really long hours. Whereas here, it’s seen as a badge of honor, and we’re raised to believe that our work is our purpose, which I think is great. My work is very purpose driven. But we’re raised to associate our work with our sense of self-worth. And I think, because of that, there’s a lot of conflating the two and a lack of leisure time. I think companies expect long hours, and workers are much more willing to give long hours because like you said, they don’t know that there’s another way. This is such a part of the American culture, and I think that really needs to shift. And I think it’s starting to shift, like the Great Resignation is workers taking back their power a little bit and saying, “Maybe we don’t want to spend our entire lives toiling away for companies that don’t seem to care much about us.”
Chris Kresser: I think that’s a great point, and maybe COVID[-19] was a wake-up call to help people realize that. Because, again, just anecdotally, in our neighborhood, I remember especially in the early part of 2020, like in, let’s say, March or April through July or August, when nearly everybody was home. It was this early lockdown period. I would look out the window and I would see families riding bikes up the street, or kids skateboarding, and people [were] playing in their driveway. I was having flashbacks to [the] mid- [to] late 1970s when I was a kid. That was basically how it was when I was growing up. There was a lot more of that. It’s not that people didn’t work hard and work long hours. I think there was just generally a lot more time for people to be at home with their families and doing leisure time activities. And there was more emphasis placed on that.
I think you’re right, [that] the Protestant work ethic is part of what drives it. But that was still there 50 years ago in the 1970s. One of the biggest changes, it seems to me, is the almost complete dissolution of boundaries between work and life, which is in part driven by smartphones and all these new technologies that we have. In the past, if you worked in an office and you had a computer at your office, you would leave the office and you were done with work. There was no email, there was no smartphone, there [were] no laptops, there [were] no iPads. It was hard to work when you weren’t at work.
Julia Stephanides: Yes, which is how it should be, right?
Chris Kresser: Right. And now, it’s the opposite. It’s hard not to work when you’re not at work. The onus is placed on the individual, as you pointed out, to set up all the break stops and boundaries and ways of trying to insulate yourself from work when you’re not at work. Because, by default, it’s set up so that you have 24/7 exposure to work.
Julia Stephanides: Exactly. You have your email on your phone, so why not? Why couldn’t you answer my email? You had your phone on.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. You’re on vacation? Well, [you’ve] still got your phone. You’re checking your email. As an example of steps that other countries have taken to deal with this, France famously passed some laws that actually penalize companies for expecting employees to work when they were on vacation or after hours. There was legislation passed where, when people go on vacation, the emails that they get sent are automatically deleted, or siphoned off into some other system, or whatever, so that when they come back from vacation, they don’t come back to this avalanche of emails waiting for them. Just from talking to people, [and] I’m sure you hear this, as well, that’s a major reason that people don’t take time off. Something like 60 percent of people don’t take two weeks of vacation in the [United States]. And I know from talking to people that part of that is because it’s a drag. [You] go on vacation and come back and feel like you’re playing catch-up for the next two months.
Julia Stephanides: Absolutely. [Especially] if your organization is not adequately staffed, which a lot [aren’t] because of this whole maximizing profits thing. Every capitalist country does that to a certain extent, but America takes it to the next level. It’s so hyper-capitalist here that a lot of companies don’t want to spend the money on extra workers. They put too much work on too few people, and that means that taking vacations is tough because when you want to go on vacation, you’re basically working double time the week before you go out. And that’s exhausting. Then you come back and, like you said, you’re working extra hard to catch up. It’s almost like, “Was it worth it to have one week off, but I had to work double the hours the week before and the week after?” It really is a matter of organizations creating a workplace where the work is dispersed and where there’s enough support that if you do go out, people can cover your work.
These are things that organizations can prevent, and like you mentioned, they can use legislation. There can [also] be policies within the company that mitigate the effects of this stuff. But I think, again, in this country, we have a culture [where] the expectation is that people will just give everything to their jobs, [and] where there hasn’t been as much pressure to [have those policies] until now. It’s kind of building, which is great.
Environment is a huge determinant of our health and happiness, and for most of us, our two main environments are home and work. Learn ways to create a workplace that feels safe and conducive to good health, in this episode of Revolution Health Radio. #chriskresser #workplacehealth #employeewellness
Chris Kresser: I’ve seen a shift in the last few years, at least in terms of the Gestalt around overwork. Maybe 10 years ago, it was like, “How’s it going?” “I’m so busy right now. I’m just so busy.” That was always the response. And that was the high status response, to say how busy you were. I don’t think that’s the case anymore, at least in certain niches or subcultures. Being extremely busy all the time and having no time for yourself or your family is no longer seen as a badge of honor and is starting to be, if not frowned upon, at least viewed with some skepticism. There’s a bit of a shift there, at least in the circles that I’m connected to, and I don’t see that coming from the companies and corporations themselves. It’s coming from a cultural shift. I’m curious if you’re seeing that shift mirrored or reflected in company policies and ways that companies are approaching this.
Julia Stephanides: That’s a good question. I can speak to, again, just what I’ve seen. I’ve never worked for a company; I’ve always represented workers. So I always see it from the worker’s side. And I think what I’ve seen more is the beginnings of this movement. I think that, like you said, companies are responsive to the market. Companies may not decide single-handedly, “We want to be a really great place for people to work, and we’re going to do this thing where we hire a lot of extra people so that people have less work.” Most companies aren’t going to do that, unless there’s pressure to do it or to have better disability benefits or things like that. These [things] are expensive, and maybe there are some companies [that] are going to do that on their own. But typically, it’s going to come from, “We need to do this or we’re not going to be able to hire good people.”
I’m hoping that’s what this time is doing. I haven’t changed jobs. I’ve been at the labor union where I work for about three years, but I’ve heard secondhand from friends who have been job hunting that it is a more employee-friendly market and that companies are realizing people don’t want to be expected to work all the time. Companies are raising pay, which is also a really important thing. Being underpaid and not being able to cover your basic needs is a huge issue for people with health issues. It’s a huge issue for anyone, but if you have health issues, that’s expensive, right? You’re going to need to [buy] a certain type of food, and maybe you need to be going to a chiropractor, which isn’t covered by insurance, and things like that. Maybe you need to be paying for Lyme disease treatments that aren’t covered by insurance. Pay is huge for people with health issues. I think companies are finally starting to realize workers are absolutely fed up [and] they’re tired of feeling exploited. I think that there is a lot more awareness, particularly with long COVID, around disability benefits and people needing time off to care for their health. I have certainly heard about more companies that are offering COVID leave and more generous leaves with respect to health issues, and just more awareness around accommodating people with health issues in the workplace, rather than deciding, “Oh, we just don’t want to hire those people, or, oh, this person has health issues. We need to phase them out.” Because now with long COVID, a large percentage of the population is going to be experiencing chronic health issues. I think that’s brought a new awareness to the conversation.
How Workplaces Impact Our Health
Chris Kresser: Let’s tie this back to health more specifically, as you just did. In addition to the sheer overwork that a lot of people are experiencing, what is it about workplaces that tend to have a negative health impact?
Julia Stephanides: I could go on about this for hours, so you might have to cut me off if I go on too long. I think the pressure that people face in an American workplace tends to be extremely high, and we have this conditioning in us that’s like, “My work is my worth, and therefore, if I’m not succeeding [at work], I’m a worthless human. That’s conditioning that needs to be unlearned or mitigated. There [are] unreasonable demands on workers. There’s also a major rise in the cost of living. You mentioned how different it was back in the ‘70s. My dad is an immigrant from a village in Cyprus, and [he] was able to make it in this country and do well for himself. He’s like, “I never would have made it today.” Things have changed. I graduated law school with $200,000 of debt. My dad graduated from pharmacy school with no debt. All these things are pointing to stress and being in survival mode. I think one thing I’ve realized about my own situation [and] about so many of the people I was representing at work is their nervous systems were in a constant state of fight or flight. Never in rest and digest. They’re constantly just trying to get their basic needs met, whether that’s a need for making a certain amount of money [or a] need for respect from their bosses. They’re always in that mode of being stressed and strung out, and it never allows them to get into that space of healing, even if you’re eating all the right food, meditating for an hour a day, trying to connect with community, exercising, all of that. If anything, doing all of that on top of a really, really stressful job can almost cause more stress and more anxiety.
I think what happens is people get in these cycles where their nervous systems are just completely strung out and their health is majorly impacted by that. These workplaces can cause health issues just because people are constantly in fight or flight. But for people who have pre-existing health issues, like Lyme disease or cancer or diabetes or something like that, that wasn’t necessarily caused by the job, trying to manage that while you’re in a workplace where you’re expected to work 50 to 60 hours a week, or where the demands on you during your working hours [are just too high] even if you’re not working crazy hours, it’s very, very hard to manage those conditions, when so much of your energy is going to work. I think it really worsens those conditions to be in a high-stress work environment.
I’m not saying that workplaces are the cause of all of our health issues in America. I think they are the cause of many. But, of course, there are many other environmental causes and other causes of disease[s]. It’s just that without being able to live a balanced life, it’s really hard to reverse those diseases and treat them.
Chris Kresser: What about the physical aspects of the workplace itself? I’m thinking of [things] like bright fluorescent lights, sitting in a chair at a desk or in a cubicle for long periods of time, maybe limited access to healthy food options, no kitchen or just a microwave to heat things up. Frankly, those were some of the things that made me uninterested in working in an office or a big company when I was younger and thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. The actual physical experience of being in that type of environment for long hours was so off-putting to me. Do you think that makes a big difference for people?
Julia Stephanides: I do. That’s why it’s very important, especially if you already have a health issue, to know what your needs are in the workplace and to be able to vocalize that. What we call that [is] reasonable accommodation. Probably for everyone, but I know for certain people like me, I’m highly sensitive to my environment and fluorescent lights make me feel sick. I hate them and I can’t work with them. I work from home [now], but when I worked in the office, I turned off the fluorescent lights, and I had my company order me a warm colored floor lamp. And that really helped. So I think there are ways you can certainly mitigate that. Definitely, more companies are open to standing desks. There are a lot of companies that have big, collaborative workspaces, and some of the people don’t do well [with that] and need a private office, [while] some people love the collaborative workspace and they want that.
I think it’s really important to try to personalize your work environment to your needs, and that’s where, from my perspective, a reasonable accommodation for disability would come in. I can talk more about that, as well, later. But it is always helpful to tell your workplace what you think you might need to do your job better because at the end of the day, you’re going to be more productive and much happier if you’re able to get an environment and a set-up that you need. A lot of companies are now offering [an office/home] hybrid. When I work from home, I can cook my own meals and I go for a walk every hour. I sit in the park for half an hour at lunch. Getting some sunlight in the middle of the day [and] getting some physical activity in there really helps me. I think it’s definitely a privilege for those who are able to do some work from home, [so] take advantage of that. Go to a midday workout class, if you can. Tailor your work schedule to your needs, and you’ll end up being so much more productive.
Chris Kresser: Absolutely. You mentioned this earlier in the [show], and I think it’s important to reiterate that there’s a tendency to make this an individual problem. Like you just need better work-life boundaries, you just need better ways of, when you go on vacation, cutting off your access to emails and things like that. Those strategies are important, and we can talk about some of them. But that’s convenient for companies to promote those ideas because then companies themselves don’t have to change the systems and structures that create these environments in the first place.
I just talked about this with Jean Rogers, who’s involved with the Children’s Screen Time Action Network. It was a different topic but similar idea, where the tech companies are incentivized to make it seem like how much time you spend on your device [is an individual issue]. And again, there’s some truth to that, that we have some ability to respond. We have responsibility as individuals in terms of our relationships to technology. But the analogy used in Johann Hari’s book Stolen Focus was [that] making it an individual issue is like saying that the solution to air pollution is that we all wear gas masks all the time. Yeah, maybe we should do something to protect ourselves, but clearly, the solution is to take much bigger steps to address air pollution at a systemic level. So, recognizing that’s the case here, as well, with workplace stuff, [and] acknowledging that most individuals who are listening to this are not in [a] position where they’re going to be making those systemic changes, how can people advocate for themselves in such a way that starts a conversation with the management in the company or encourages companies to take responsibility for their role, where it’s not seen as just an individual problem?
What Companies Can Do to Improve Health in the Workplace
Julia Stephanides: Well, I love that question, and I couldn’t agree with you more. I think so many people in the health and wellness space are just talking about health as if the onus is always on the person. It’s like, “If you’re unhealthy, it’s your fault; here’s what you can do to get healthy.” And that’s such a blaming approach because you’re failing to look at all the systems in this country and this world that cause poor health. So many of them are beyond an individual’s control, and I think it’s really important to acknowledge that and to acknowledge that we’re living in an unhealthy society. If you’re sick, it’s not your fault. What I do with Legally Holistic is try to help people take their power back [by] acknowledging all those systems and then saying, “How do we navigate them in a skillful way? How can we become empowered within those systems?”
Obviously, if you’re a person in a management position, it’s really important to think about creating a healthier workplace. And I don’t just mean [that] people are encouraged to get up and take breaks, but [that] people are paid well, there’s enough people to do the work, and there’s healthy communication. That’s one thing I’ve seen in a lot of legal workplaces is [when] people are very good lawyers but they’re not necessarily trained as managers. They’re not emotionally intelligent managers, and that causes so much stress and even trauma for some of the employees to be in a workplace where there’s a lot of dysfunctional communication. People don’t learn nonviolent communication. So if you’re in a management position, you really have a responsibility to try to incorporate all these healthier behaviors and model that from the top down.
What Workers Can Do to Increase Well-Being at Work
Julia Stephanides: For people who aren’t in a management position, it’s important to really know your worth, know your needs, know what your priorities are in a workplace, and learn how to skillfully advocate for yourself.
That means, especially in this market, really negotiate your pay. That’s something that women are a lot less likely to do than men. Ask for what you need in order to do your job productively. If, like we had mentioned earlier, you get anxious or distracted in the company’s open floor plan, ask if you can have a private office or noise-canceling headphones. Frame it as, “I really want to be doing my best work, and I’m really excited about the company and I have so much to contribute, [but] I just get really distracted. I think I could be a lot more focused and do better work if I could get an office or get some headphones.” If you find commuting exhausting because you have chronic fatigue, or fibromyalgia, or other reasons, ask the company if you can work from home a couple [of] days a week or full time. These are examples of reasonable accommodations. Also, prioritize finding work that feels purposeful to you. Your purpose could [just] be providing for [your] family. But find a way to center your work around a purpose so that it feels more meaningful as you’re doing it. And really prioritize finding an organization that is good to their workers, where people are happy, [and] where you like the people that you’re working with. [It] makes a huge impact on your health to have good relationships with your coworkers.
[I live alone], and I learned during the pandemic [that] I didn’t realize the extent to which my coworkers at my last job were like my family. Every day I went in [to work] and they’d be like, “Oh, how was your date last night? How’s the living stuff going? Your dog was at the vet. How’s he doing?” Going into quarantine and not having anyone check in on me other than by text, I realized, “Wow, that really was so much healthier for me to have this built-in community.” So work can actually be really beneficial to your health if you’re prioritizing finding a place where there’s healthy communication, people work well together, they respect your boundaries, they pay you well for the work that you’re doing, and you like the work.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, that’s super important. It does seem like there’s a flipside to virtual work. On the one hand, you have more opportunity to cook your own meals and take breaks and exercise, go sit in the park in the middle of the day, all that great stuff. The downside might be for people who enjoy being in an environment in person with other people. Being forced to work virtually, which I know some people have been, [when] they’d actually prefer to be in an office, at least part of the time, has been a challenge. And it seems like there’s a lot less recourse there in some ways. Because if the company has shut down its office entirely or if they’re not allowing people to come into the office, then that might be, in some ways, a more challenging situation than asking to work from home one or two days a week.
Julia Stephanides: Yeah, and I think that’s right. I realized that what would be best [for me] is a hybrid model. I have a couple [of] days at home to be meal prepping and doing laundry and having my midday park sessions, but I overall really need that community. Knowing that is helpful, and apparently, the job market is good right now, so there are going to be offices where they are still having people come in person. I think it’s something for you to think about. It’s so important to know your needs and then, to the extent that you can, align your work with those needs. If you realize [you’re] someone who really works well in an office and your company doesn’t have an office anymore, you may want to think about getting another job.
How People with Health Issues Can Become Empowered at Work
Chris Kresser: For folks who are listening to this and are resonating with what you’re saying and are in a situation where they may have a health condition that causes challenges for them at work, and they don’t feel like they’re getting the accommodation that they would like to get, where do they find out more about what their rights are? Do those vary a lot from state to state? That’s probably a rhetorical question. But where’s the best place for people to look and find out what their rights are and what they can ask for from their employers?
Julia Stephanides: That’s such an important question, Chris, because a lot of people with health issues are really struggling to keep up at work and they don’t know what their rights are. The employee benefits and protections in this country are certainly much weaker than [in] many developed countries. But the good news is that there are still options and protections in place, and knowing your rights will really empower you to skillfully navigate your situation at work. And that will, I can say firsthand, massively support your healing process.
So yes, the laws do vary state by state. There are two important protections at the federal level that are helpful for people with health issues. The first is the Family and Medical Leave Act, or the FMLA, which I’m sure many listeners have heard of. This allows certain workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a year to deal with a serious health condition that makes them unable to perform the essential functions of their job. If you’re eligible for FMLA leave, the company has to hold your job open and maintain your benefits while you’re out. A lot of people don’t realize that they can use this leave and take time off because they don’t think their health condition is serious enough. I was very pleased to learn that things like chronic migraines, autoimmune conditions, anxiety, [and] depression can make you eligible for FMLA, particularly if your doctor is willing to certify that the condition is interfering with your ability to complete your work. There are some limitations, like [that] the FMLA only applies to companies with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius, so make sure to research the law to see whether it applies to you. If it doesn’t, check what your state law offers. California requires that companies with just five or more employees offer this medical leave. I can say firsthand [that] this is a really helpful benefit. I’ve used it, and when I finally took a three-month medical leave, it changed my life because it gave me the time I needed to focus on my health without stress and distractions. I highly recommend taking advantage of this.
Of course, a lot of people can’t afford to take three months off work without pay. I definitely couldn’t. Luckily, many companies offer short-term disability benefits that will cover you while you’re out. And if your company doesn’t have these benefits, your state might offer them. California is great. They offer short-term disability, and the payments for me were about 60 percent of my salary, but they weren’t taxable. So it ended up being close to what I [made] anyway. I’ve included more information on the FMLA in the show note[s], and you can also just Google “medical leave in [your state]” to see what your state offers.
The other important federal law is the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the ADA. This says that your employer can’t discriminate against you in any way or reject your job application because you have a disability. The law also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to workers with disabilities, which we’ve talked a little bit about. The ADA only applies to employers with 15 or more employees, and there’s more information in the show notes. I’d make sure to Google whether your state has a disability discrimination law, as well, because it may apply to companies with even fewer employees or otherwise be better for workers than the ADA.
One thing I do want to note [is that] when I was having migraines, I didn’t identify as a person with a disability. But the definition of disability is broader than you might think, and a lot of people with health issues are covered under the law. The definition of disability is “a person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.” That can certainly include things like autoimmune disease, anxiety, depression, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, [and] things like that.
Chris Kresser: That’s super important for people to know because I think we have a limited conception, like you said, of what a disability is and what qualifies you for getting additional consideration in the workplace. The laws have changed a lot in a lot of states, and there’s generally more available than people realize, from what I’ve seen in talking to folks. This isn’t my area per se, but as a healthcare provider, I often encounter people who are in this situation and who’ve taken steps to try to improve their circumstances at work. They’ve often found out that there are more options available to them than they originally thought. So I think it sounds like googling this stuff is a good first step. We’ve got to wrap it up now, but I’d love for you to tell people where they can find you if someone listening to this needs help and they’re in California. How [can] they contact you?
Julia Stephanides: I have a website, www.LegallyHolistic.com. I’m also on Instagram, @Legally.Holistic. I have a consulting practice where I help people navigate health challenges in all aspects, but particularly focused on advocating for themselves at work.
Chris Kresser: Oh, great. So because you’re not in a kind of attorney-client relationship, can you consult with people from any state?
Julia Stephanides: Yeah, what I offer is not formal legal advice, and I’m not in an attorney-client relationship with them. It’s more like coaching, and I can talk about where they can find all the relevant laws, what some of the federal laws are, and just talk them through their options and help them figure out the best path forward. But yeah, I can work with people from all over the country.
Chris Kresser: Fantastic. Well, Julia, thanks so much for joining me. I think a lot of people are going to be helped by this, and [I] appreciate all the work you’re doing advocating for folks to take care of themselves in the workplace.
Julia Stephanides: Thank you so much for having me.
Chris Kresser: Thanks, everybody, for listening. Keep sending your questions to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion, and we’ll see you next time.
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