Type 1 diabetes at work

What to tell your employer?

When Kristen Garland was just 27 years old, she found herself losing focus in her position as webmaster at her workplace.

“I was often late and my colleagues asked if I was feeling run down,” recalls Garland. “I assumed it was just a result of being stressed, but before long I was told I had type 1 diabetes (T1D). It was a diagnosis that changed my life.”

 Garland immediately took short-term leave and began working from home.

“My boss was accommodating, patient and encouraging,” she says.

With Garland’s approval, her boss explained the situation to Garland’s colleagues and they, in turn, offered their support while expressing their desire to learn more about type 1 diabetes.

“If anyone asked questions after the fact, I just told them the truth and tried to respond as best I could,” she explains. “Being the first on either side of my family to have diabetes, I didn't know much myself. However, the exchanges were encouraging, which was actually very helpful.”

Over the years, companies are recognizing the growing need to find new ways to accommodate employees with various health conditions. However, employers can only offer helpful solutions if an employee chooses to disclose his or her condition.1

Disclosing your T1D at work

“I'd never been nervous about telling anyone about my condition; I just didn’t think twice about it,” says Garland. “While I hadn’t had exposure to anyone else living with type 1 diabetes, I knew there were discrimination laws in place to protect employees to some extent.”

Some people, however, might be more hesitant to tell their employer. As long as your job does not affect the safety of others, your medical information is confidential and the decision to share is up to you.

It might make sense to communicate the details of your condition, especially if you need to make some accommodations to your work situation to help manage your diabetes, such as ensuring meal breaks. Disclosure to your employer may also be necessary if it may affect your personal safety and/or that of others around you, like in the case of a construction worker, for example. 

“In certain types of jobs, people need to manage their blood glucose closely in order to prevent situations that may cause injury to themselves or to others,” says Christine Turner, National Director of Community Engagement at JDRF Canada. “If their blood sugar decreases, they can become disoriented, which could be dangerous especially on a construction site.”

Tell someone you trust

Although disclosing your condition is your personal choice if there is no safety risk at work, “In an emergency situation it is best to have an informed colleague that can provide assistance,” says Turner.

Here is some key information to share with that trusted co-worker:2,3

  • Symptoms of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia): shaking, sweating, dizziness, hunger, blurred vision, difficulty concentrating, feeling anxious, irritability, and changes in behaviour.
  • Basic emergency steps to take if your blood sugar drops too low.
  • The location of your glucagon, when to use it, and how to administer it. Glucagon is an injection you should always have on hand to help raise blood sugar in an emergency.
  •  A call to 911 if they are unsure of the appropriate steps to take, or if you are unresponsive.

Tips for telling your employer and requesting accommodations

If you do decide to officially disclose your condition, “Inform your employer that you live with type 1 diabetes, and how that may or may not affect your day,” suggests Turner. “Use it as a quick educational opportunity. You are looking for acceptance and support if required.”

Garland agrees, adding, “I see it as a chance to raise awareness of type 1 diabetes whenever possible.”

You may also want to specify some accommodations that your employer can put in place:4

  • Breaks throughout your work day to check blood glucose levels, eat a snack, take medication, inject insulin, or go to the bathroom
  • A place to rest if needed, and to test your blood glucose and inject insulin
  • The ability to keep diabetes supplies and food nearby
  • Time off for doctor’s appointments
  • Ability to work from home or set up a modified work schedule
  • Permission to use a chair or stool if you have neuropathy (a nerve disorder) and are in a job that requires standing
  • A large screen computer monitor or other assistive device if you have retinopathy (an eye disorder)

If you do shift work, managing type 1 diabetes may be more difficult since it may increase your risk of high or low blood glucose levels due to changes in your body’s circadian rhythms, which regulate daily processes such as hunger and fatigue. Speak with your healthcare team so they can help develop a management plan that suits you. There may also be accommodations they can recommend, such as arranging a standard shift or prescheduled breaks.5

Have a strong support system

Whether or not you decide to share your type 1 diabetes diagnosis at work, having a strong support system is crucial to successfully managing your type 1 diabetes both in your professional and personal life.

“My daughter Kenadie (who also has type 1 diabetes), my mother Eleanore, and my friend, Marlene Grass RN, founder of The Charles H. Best Diabetes Centre which supports almost 1,500 people with type 1 diabetes in the Durham Region, have been my biggest cheerleaders on this journey,” says Garland. “They have been instrumental in my successes to date by offering unconditional support and resources that have made every aspect of this disease a little bit more manageable.”

Garland’s journey has seen her return to school to become a registered dietician so she can eventually give back to others living with type 1 diabetes.

 “My goal is to establish a centre where both newly-diagnosed and long-term warriors can find solace, access resources, and gather the strength and tools they need to stay physically and mentally healthy,” she explains. “I'm hoping to be able to offer type 1 diabetes-specific clinical counselling and community support to children, adults and their families.”

References:

  1. What is the duty to accommodate and how can it help me? Canadian Human Rights Commission website http://www.chrc-ccdp.gc.ca/eng/content/what-duty-accommodate-and-how-can-it-help-me. Accessed Feb 27 2017.
  2. Managing blood glucose levels. JDRF Canada website http://www.jdrf.ca/t1dhub/learn/adults/managing-blood-glucose-levels/. Accessed Feb 15 2017.
  3. Diabetes 9 to 5: Tips to help you manage your diabetes at work. WebMD website http://www.webmd.com/diabetes/features/tips-to-help-you-manage-your-diabetes-at-work#1. Accessed Feb 15 2017.
  4. Common reasonable accommodations of individuals with diabetes. American Diabetes Association website http://www.diabetes.org/living-with-diabetes/know-your-rights/discrimination/employment-discrimination/reasonable-accommodations-in-the-workplace/common-reasonable-accommodations.html. Accessed Feb 15 2017.
  5. JDRF Canada T1D Adult Toolkit 2014.

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