Diabetes in the workplace

A growing concern for employers

For Ken Hall, juggling diabetes and a busy career in public transportation requires good diabetes management skills.

Hall, who has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 28 years, is an operations supervisor for Calgary Transit. He works shift work and is responsible for more than 60 employees.

“I’m lucky with my work that I am generally alone in a vehicle, so I can test my blood sugar and take insulin pretty much whenever I need to,” says the 35-year-old. “With the unexpected nature of some aspects of my job, I may not be able to have a meal when I’m scheduled to. So to be prepared I always carry supplies with me in case my blood sugar drops and to subdue my hunger. It’s a critical part of my diabetes management plan for working shift work.”

People with diabetes often face discrimination in the workplace simply because others do not understand diabetes and how it’s managed. The word “diabetes” often leads employers to concerns about loss of work time and productivity, thereby influencing their willingness to hire, continue to employ or promote a person with diabetes.

People with diabetes may conceal their disease from their employers and colleagues in order to avoid negative reactions, rejection or outright discrimination. As a result, an insulin injection may be missed, a blood glucose test forgotten or a meal postponed, consequently jeopardizing an individual’s overall health and perhaps his safety on the job.

A person with well-managed diabetes does not pose a threat to colleagues or to the efficient operation of a business. In fact, the employer of a person with diabetes may well benefit in the long run because people with well-managed diabetes often miss fewer days due to illness because, in order to manage their blood glucose effectively, they must lead generally healthier lifestyles.

More than two million Canadians have diabetes. There are two main types of diabetes: Type 1 and Type 2.

Type 1 occurs when the pancreas is unable to produce insulin. About 10 per cent of people with diabetes have Type 1. All people with Type 1 diabetes require insulin injections.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or when the body does not effectively use the insulin that is produced. Many people with Type 2 can manage their diabetes with diet and exercise, while others also require medication, including insulin.

An ounce of prevention

Diabetes is a serious issue that has a significant impact in the workplace. By promoting a healthier workplace, employers benefit from improved employee productivity, decreased absenteeism, a reduction in injuries and lower drug plan costs.

Type 2 diabetes is on the rise in Canada because of an aging population, high rates of obesity and sedentary lifestyles. Eating well and regular exercise are key elements to reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes. Employers can encourage a healthy lifestyle by implementing some of the following suggestions:

•encourage employees to break for lunch away from their desk at a routine time;

•create a healthy recipe exchange;

•organize a weekly walking club, exercise classes during lunch hours or a discounted membership for a local gym;

•instead of bringing out a box of doughnuts at a meeting, offer healthy snacks such as dairy products, whole-wheat bagels, fruit and vegetables; and

•when planning all-day meetings, allow time for people to stretch and move around. Plan a brief physical activity if possible, such as a quick walk after lunch or mid-afternoon when people could be feeling sluggish.

Managing the disease

For employees with diabetes, a management plan is crucial. The plan is unique to each person’s needs and includes regular medical reviews, an exercise program and diet, insulin or other medication therapy.

The plan is developed with the patient’s job in mind so it can best fit the person’s lifestyle. Once developed, the employee should share the plan with his manager.

Managers should be aware that employees with diabetes aren’t asking for special treatment. However, they do have certain medical needs, such as quick accessibility to food, regular meals, access to blood glucose meters and regular breaks.

“I believe that employees shouldn’t be afraid to tell their employer and co-workers about their diabetes. If colleagues know that you have diabetes, your work environment can be less stressful,” says Hall.

Thanks to new insulin drugs, managing diabetes on the job is much easier and more effective than it used to be. Better blood glucose meters and better education for the person with diabetes, as well as for employers and co-workers, are also helping.

Workplace accommodation

Human rights codes provide that an employer must accommodate a person with diabetes up to the point of “undue hardship.” Reasonable accommodation of a person with diabetes may simply mean altering an employee’s work schedule to include regular breaks to eat a snack, to monitor blood glucose or to administer medication in a private location.

“I believe that the majority of people are very uninformed about diabetes,” says Hall, who has asked co-workers if they are okay with him doing his testing and administering medication in front of them. Fortunately for him, they are.

“If employers take a little time to learn the basics it will be a great benefit for both the company and its employees,” he says.

Whitney Binns is the manager of media relations with the Canadian Diabetes Association. For more information visit www.diabetes.ca or call 1-800-BANTING.

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