Candice Johnson, Ph.D.: Focused on How Work Affects Health

By Lauren Westbrook

Candice Johnson, Ph.D., joined the Department of Family Medicine & Community Health in 2020 as faculty in the research unit and the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. She earned a doctorate in epidemiology from Emory University in 2012 and a Master of Science in Epidemiology from the University of Ottawa (Canada) in 2008.

Her research focuses on how workplace exposures and work-related policies affect the health of workers and their families. Johnson has recently written a commentary about the costs of attending academic conferences and how such costs could drive disparities in career development opportunities. Follow her on Twitter: @EpiCandice

We asked Johnson to share five things about herself and her career:

On her career path

Johnson’s work has many foci, including birth defects and workplace safety during pregnancy. Her varied research topics reflect the different interests she developed over her career.

“My career path was not linear,” Johnson says. “I always wanted to be a writer, until I learned about genes.”

Johnson studied biology in college, earned an epidemiology master’s degree, a doctorate, and then worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where she was first introduced to workplace safety and health research.

She came to the Department of Family Medicine & Community Health from the CDC. Now, her research is focused on how work affects health. For example, Johnson has studies underway to determine how disparities in paid sick leave have changed over time and which workers have insufficient bathroom access at work.

Paid sick leave is a good way to reduce health disparities and improve health, Johnson says.

On her research interests

“I study how work causes health, yet work is not always considered when we think about what makes a person healthy,” Johnson says.

For example, low-wage workers might not be able to make enough money to lift their family out of poverty and may also miss out on other health-promoting aspects of work such as health insurance, paid parental leave and safe working conditions. 

She puts a spotlight on work, where people often spend the bulk of their time. Johnson says most people depend on work for income, but not all work is structured in a way that promotes health.

“If we can’t change the need for income,” she said, “can we change the way we work?”

On her upcoming projects

Johnson currently is in the planning stages for research on bathroom access for transgender people.

“I have two projects right now on transgender workers and work discrimination,” Johnson says. “I want this to be a health issue and not just a human resources issue.”

This research sometimes presents her with a challenge, because there are few data points on transgender workers. She is partnering with researchers from the Duke Sexual and Gender Minority Health Program to change that. 

On who her work is for and about

A lot of Johnson’s previous work has been technical studies meant for other epidemiologists. Her new research on bathroom access, transgender workers and paid sick leave is meant for a non-academic audience. She has an interest in getting the word out to advocacy groups in the LGBTQ community.

In addition, her work on paid sick leave will be aimed at a broader group of researchers outside of public health in addition to non-academics working in policy.

On what she enjoys about her work

“There are so many things. I love coming up with ideas throughout the creative process that will be helpful for people,” Johnson says.

Her work at the CDC included hands-on work—even taking her to West Africa to help contain the 2014 Ebola outbreak. 

Arriving at Duke was an exciting change. Being in the Research Triangle has also allowed for new partnerships with other nearby universities.

“It’s fun to be in an academic environment,” Johnson says. “I’ve met so many people at Duke who are doing interesting research on work and health.”

Lauren Westbrook is a communications intern with the Department of Family Medicine & Community Health. She is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, majoring in public relations.