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4 tips to support employees with diabetes in the workplace

November 11, 2022 • read

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4 tips to support employees with diabetes in the workplace

Over the past decades, Canadians have experienced rising rates of diabetes. Today, about one in three Canadians lives with some form of diabetes or prediabetes. As more Canadians than ever before experience the impact of diabetes, employers must put in place policies to support these employees in the workplace. 

While some employers may feel concerned about diabetes harming their bottom line, others recognize that they can play an essential role in helping employees reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, or manage or reduce the risk of type 1 or 2 diabetes complications.

So why should employers care about diabetes, and what are the employer’s responsibilities towards employees with diabetes? Moreover, how can employers better understand the needs of employees who need diabetes care? Here’s everything you need to know.

What’s diabetes?

Diabetes is a lifelong medical condition that involves the body being unable to produce enough insulin or adequately use the insulin it has produced.

Insulin is a hormone that controls the level of glucose, a form of sugar, in your bloodstream. Your body can produce glucose or get it from food, and it’s a crucial source of energy for the cells in your body. Insulin helps your cells take up the glucose from your bloodstream and use it for energy. Insulin resistance, or not having enough insulin in your body, can lead to higher levels of glucose in your bloodstream.

What are the different types of diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the pancreas produces no insulin. This form of diabetes can’t be prevented, and employees living with type 1 diabetes need insulin to live, which they can get through an injection or an insulin pump. 

Another form of diabetes, type 2 diabetes, can be developed when the pancreas stops producing enough insulin or when the body stops adequately using the insulin that’s produced. Many people with type 2 diabetes can manage the condition with diet and exercise, though medication can also be required.

When a person is pregnant, the body can also stop adequately producing or using insulin. This is called “Gestational diabetes”, and it affects around 5% of all pregnancies. This form of diabetes usually goes away after the baby is born, but both mother and child can remain at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

Signs and symptoms of diabetes

Though not everyone who has diabetes will show symptoms, some of the most common warning signs of the development of diabetes most commonly include:

  • Unusual or increased thirst 
  • Urinating more often, even at night 
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue or lack of energy 

Additional symptoms can include: 

  • Blurry vision 
  • Slow-healing cuts or sores
  • Genital itching or thrush 
  • Tingling or numbness in hands or feet 
  • Difficulty getting or maintaining an erection 
  • Confusion or passing out 
  • Sweet-smelling breath
  • Frequent or recurring infections, including genital thrush
  • Irritability
  • Disorientation

Complications of diabetes

If the pancreas isn’t producing insulin, glucose builds up in the blood. This condition is known as hyperglycemia, and it can lead to significant health problems, including heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, heart attack, blindness, and more.

When insulin removes too much glucose from the blood, the opposite condition, hypoglycemia, can also occur. This can be the result of increased physical activity, too much medication, missing a snack or a meal, or drinking alcohol, among others.

The longer someone has diabetes and the less controlled their blood sugar is, the more likely they are to experience health complications as a result of diabetes. The risks of diabetes-related long-term complications include: 

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Kidney damage (nephropathy)
  • Eye conditions (diabetic retinopathy)
  • Nerve damage, including the feet, legs, or hands due to poor circulation (neuropathy, amputation)
  • Infections due to impaired healing of cuts and blisters
  • Skin conditions, including bacterial and fungal infections
  • Hearing impairment
  • Sexual problems in women, including urinary tract infections, thrush, or reduced blood flow to genitals and impairing sensation
  • Sexual problems in men, including restricted blood flow causing difficulty getting or maintaining an erection
  • Gum disease
  • Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
  • High blood pressure 
  • Mental health issues, including anxiety and depression

Diabetes and workplace safety

Diabetes is a chronic condition that needs to be monitored and managed carefully. Not providing sufficient support to employees living with diabetes can lead to absenteeism and loss of productivity, among other issues.

So what can organizations do to better support employees living with diabetes? Here are four quick tips.

1 – Bring people leaders on board

Employees shouldn’t fear that diabetes will affect their employment opportunities, or that they’ll face employment discrimination as a result of having diabetes.

Instead, organizations should create a supportive environment for employees who have diabetes so that team members see no reason not to disclose their diabetes to their employer. For employees living with diabetes, having an ally at work can be tremendously helpful, so employees should be encouraged to inform their superiors and discuss any reasonable adjustments that could be made to help them manage their condition. 

For example, some employees may require a safe place to store their insulin in the office. Others may require free time for a simple snack break or to check their blood sugar levels while on the job. 

Managers can also support their team by providing flexibility for routine medical appointments, which could be every three months for some. For example, people living with diabetes are at a greater risk of several illnesses, including pneumonia, if they get the flu. By making reasonable accommodations, employers can help employees find the time to get their annual flu shot more easily.

Lastly, managers should also receive simple training to have more knowledge and awareness of risk factors, know what the symptoms of low blood sugar levels look like, and what to do in an emergency. Managers can also designate a place employees can use to take insulin when needed or rest until their blood sugar levels return to normal.

2 – Provide healthy food options for celebrations

When working in the office, managers may be tempted to organize mini-celebrations to highlight a team member’s birthday or a milestone that was recently reached. While the manager’s intent is good, offering only cake, doughnuts, or hard-to-resist sweets can present employees living with diabetes with an irresistible temptation. 

Organizations can support employees living with diabetes by encouraging managers to also provide healthier options, like yogurt and berries, apple slices with nut butter, almonds, or even popcorn (just make sure to skip the oil, butter, and salt). Employers can also share educational materials with employees, such as the glycemic index for foods. 

3 – Make time for movement and exercise

Being active makes the body more sensitive to insulin, which can help employees manage diabetes in the workplace more easily. Physical activity also allows employees to control their blood sugar levels, which, in the long run, can lower their risk of nerve damage and heart disease.

Employees should aim to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, or 20 to 25 minutes per day. For employees who work at a desk, it can sometimes be difficult to reconcile the need for movement with the demands of the workday, which can inadvertently push them towards a more sedentary lifestyle.

Organizations can support employees by encouraging them to take regular breaks and go for short walks. Something as quick and simple as walking up and down a flight of stairs can do wonders to get the heart rate up. Some companies also choose to provide a budget for standing or treadmill desks, either for an employee’s home or for the office. 

If possible, organizing walking meetings can also be a great way to build in easy exercise during the day.

4 – Make sure employees have access to emotional support

For many, being diagnosed with diabetes can feel overwhelming. Not only is it difficult to navigate the lifestyle changes required to manage diabetes, but coming to terms with the fact that diabetes is a lifelong condition can feel downright crushing. 

A clear link exists between diabetes and depression. Often, both conditions are worsened by the other. Moreover, stress at work can also affect blood glucose levels and diabetes management

Over time, these cascading effects can even lead to burnout, sometimes referred to as “diabetes distress.” This is when people feel frustrated, defeated, or overwhelmed by diabetes.

Providing mental health support for your team can go a long way in helping people newly diagnosed with diabetes cope with and manage diabetes. A virtual care solution like Mind by Maple can remove obstacles to access care, helping employees see a mental health therapist for support when and where they need it.

How Maple can help

Diabetes management can require chronic care and regular medical appointments. Many of these appointments, however, don’t need to occur in person. Providing your team a virtual care solution like Maple is a great way to increase flexibility for your employees, allowing them to get the care they need, when they need it.

Some of the biggest benefits of a quality virtual care solution include employees being able to access a provider in minutes any time, even after-hours or during the weekend, avoiding unnecessary trips to the walk-in clinic or the emergency room for minor health issues, missing less time at work, being able to see a healthcare professional more regularly and more easily, and reducing stress. Over time, all of these advantages can lead to improved health outcomes and performance for employees living with diabetes.

Conclusion

Not everyone who lives with diabetes is affected the same way. Self-management is a huge part of diabetes, and not all employees will be able to easily fit the demands of diabetes into their daily lives. Therefore, it’s crucial that employees who live with diabetes receive support from their managers and colleagues in the workplace.

Organizations can also play a key role in diabetes prevention by setting up workplace diabetes education and prevention programs for employees, or rolling out a diabetes screening program at work. Screening tests don’t require a lot of budget or resources, but can have a significant impact on employee health.

If you’d like to speak with a member of our team about supporting employees with their health and well-being, the impact of a quality virtual care solution on employee health and well-being, and how to bring your employee benefits to the next level, please reach out. We’d be happy to share our insights with you as Canada’s leading virtual care platform.

This blog was developed by our team and reviewed by a medical professional.

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