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27th June 2018

One worker in six with diabetes feels they have been discriminated against at work because of their condition, research has suggested. With Diabetes Week taking place in June, it was a chance to highlight the important role employers, and occupational health, have in terms of education, advocacy and employee support when it comes managing diabetes in the workplace.

Employee health and wellbeing – diabetes and workplace health

Diabetes Week took place earlier this month, when supporters, families and people with the condition came together to share their stories and raise awareness of diabetes.

And, if latest research is anything to go by, greater knowledge about and awareness of the condition is definitely needed, especially in the workplace, despite the fact more and more people have diabetes, especially the obesity-related Type 2.

Research by Diabetes UK in April argued that a third of people living with the condition said they had experienced a lack of support and understanding from colleagues in the workplace.

One in six people with diabetes in work felt they had been discriminated against by their employer because of their condition.

More than one third added that living with diabetes had caused them difficulty at work, while 7% had not told their employer they had the condition.

A quarter of people said they would like time off work for diabetes-related appointments and flexibility to take regular breaks for testing their blood sugar or to take medication.

Helen Dickens, assistant director of campaigns and mobilisation at Diabetes UK, said: “Discrimination and difficulties come about because employers lack knowledge about diabetes and do not understand its impact. We need to talk more about the condition and the many ways it affects people’s lives in order to persuade places of work to offer greater understanding and flexibility. Everyone deserves to work in an environment where they can ask for the support they need.”

What, then, should employers be taking away from this?

Tools and resources

First, employers should recognise – and make use of – the extensive resources and tools that are out there. Diabetes UK has useful resources both for employers and employees, including outlining an employer’s responsibilities in this area under the Equality Act. The Fit for Work website also has handy tips and advice. For more medical advice, the NHS is of course a good place to turn.

Second, as already touched upon, calendar markers such as Diabetes Week are a great way to kickstart conversation, health promotion activity, education and awareness-raising, as well as direct fundraising if that is something likely to resonate with and engage your organisation.

Third, and just as importantly, it is about recognising that, even though diabetes is becoming more common, it can be something managers struggle to deal with. There’s the fact it can, in terms of physical “symptoms” be relatively invisible. There can be stigma or misconceptions to deal with, especially in terms of confusion between Type 1 and Type 2.

Role of EAPs

This is where a tool such as an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) can help. An EAP, of course, is best known as a service that can help with confidential counselling and support around mental and emotional health.

That, in itself, can sometimes be important, especially in terms of offering employee support, especially to employees who have recently had a diagnosis and are struggling to come to terms with this.

But an EAP can also be helpful in terms of offering best practice advice and guidance for managers around how best to approach, manage and support an employee with diabetes – what to say (or not say), what adjustments or support to put in place and so on.

As Dr Lucy Wright, Chief Medical Officer at Optima Health, has put it: “Employers need to recognise there may be issues such as understanding and managing diabetes-related hypoglycaemic episodes, and the fact employees with diabetes may need time off for hospital or GP appointments."

“It is vital that employees with diabetes don’t ignore the condition and are not put under pressure simply to ‘muddle through’. Missing essential health checks or not taking diabetes medication on time can lead to serious complications, such as amputations, stroke, heart disease, kidney failure and even early death.

“But it is also important to be addressing the emotional and mental health-related side of diabetes, including the risk of prejudice and discrimination and the stress and worry that can often accompany a diabetes diagnosis. And this is where access to an EAP may be a valuable addition to your health and wellbeing toolkit,” she adds.