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Work stress is starting to affect my health. Is there anything legally I can do about it?

Work stress. Employment attorney. Labor lawyer.

To begin, you're not alone. National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health recently released a study about American workers’ perceptions of their health problems, experiences, issues, and challenges at work. The researchers interviewed 1,601 employees. Overall, some 43 percent of them told researchers they believed their job negatively affected their stress levels. For some, they said work stress affected their eating habits (28 percent), sleeping habits (27 percent) and weight (22 percent).

(Photo: Attorney Kate Fitzpatrick with Senator Tom Harkin, architect of the

Americans with Disabilities Act.)

The study also revealed that a majority of workers in certain types of work -- in particular, low-paying jobs, dangerous jobs, disabled workers, workers in medical and restaurant jobs, and people who work 50 or more hours per week in their main job -- said their job has a negative impact on their stress level.

Are there any laws out there that protect workers in these situations?

There are a number of laws -- including the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Massachusetts Earned Sick Leave Law, the Americans with Disabilities Act and its Massachusetts counterpart, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act -- that may help. But these laws, like most employment laws, are highly fact specific. A good employment lawyer needs to suss out whether they apply to you and to your fact scenario.

A few examples may help to explain how and why this is.

The Family and Medical Leave Act could help to protect your job while you take leave to attend to your health condition. But it only applies in certain circumstances, such as to protect "a serious health condition," where one has worked for an employer for 12 months, and where the employer has 50 or more employees in a 75-mile radius. (There are other ways to qualify -- these are just some examples.) A good employment lawyer will lead you through questions to examine if you qualify for FMLA leave and then discuss with you how to go about negotiating it with your employer.

The newer Massachusetts Earned Sick Leave Law may also help. Most employees are to be provided the ability to accrue one hour of earned sick leave for every 30 hours of work. If the employer has 11 or more employees, that sick leave must be paid. The employee must work for 89 calendar days before being able to use the earned sick time. There are also other considerations a good employment attorney would inquire about to determine if and how to recommend using it in your situation.

Additionally there is also the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its state law counterpart. If an employee has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, he or she can ask for a reasonable accommodation at work that would enable the individual to be able to perform the essential functions of the job. Examples of a reasonable accommodation may be a modified work schedule or work environment. But an employer does not have to provide the accommodation if it is not reasonable and if it results in an undue hardship.

Again, all of these laws apply on a case by case basis depending upon the facts at issue. In other words, a good employment lawyer will ask you the right questions to figure out what laws apply to you and your personal situation and then make a plan for you to move forward.

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