Working through: diabetes | IOSH Magazine

Don’t let diabetes hold you back at work. Being open about your condition will make it easier for your colleagues to support you. And if you do experience problems, you have rights that protect you.

Talking to your colleagues and manager about diabetes

The better your colleagues understand your diabetes, the easier it will be to get the support you need.

A good first step can be to share our information on Diabetes: the basics and Supporting people with diabetes in the workplace.

Encourage your colleagues to ask you questions and give them the information they need to help – for example, what to do if you have a hypo. Reassure them that you’re in control of your condition and it’s nothing to worry about.

If you didn’t talk about your diabetes when you applied for the job, it’s a good idea to tell your line manager about it sooner rather than later. They’ve already decided you’re the best person for the job and will want you to be the best you can be at work. And if they don’t know about your diabetes, they may not be able to give you the support you need.

Managing your diabetes at work

At work, it’s more important than ever to be organised to manage your diabetes safely. Put reminders for blood sugar tests and injections in your calendar. Look at what meetings you have at the start of the day so you can plan around them. And if you need to leave your workplace or travel, make sure you pack what you need.

Sticking to your usual work pattern at work can be tricky, especially in office environments where biscuits and cake are ever present. Try introducing fruit as an alternative to sweet treats. It’s likely that there will be a few work colleagues who are glad of having a healthier option too. And prepare your lunch and snacks in advance so you don’t end up eating unhealthily as a last resort.

Like anyone, your stress levels are likely to be higher at work than at home, which can make managing your diabetes more difficult. Make sure you take time out to relax throughout the day. And talk to your manager about flexible working options, which can make it easier to manage your diabetes and do your work.  

Treating your diabetes at work

If you inject insulin and monitor your blood glucose levels, you will know these are things you need to do to keep safe. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed about it. Explain to your colleagues what you’re doing and don’t feel the need to hide in the toilet. 

If you’re at risk of hypos, tell your colleagues how to spot the symptoms and how to treat one. This will make sure you get the right help and stop them panicking because they don’t know what to do. Talk to your first-aider so they know how to act in an emergency.

If you have a hypo at work, talk to your colleagues afterwards. Explain why it might have happened, as although you don’t always know why you have a hypo, some things make them more likely. Let them know it can happen if diabetes is treated with insulin or certain diabetes medication.

Your rights at work

One in six working people with diabetes feel they’ve been discriminated against by their employer because of their diabetes. If you feel you’ve been mistreated, remember you have rights.

As someone living with diabetes in England, Scotland or Wales, your rights at work are set out in the Equality Act 2010. If you live in Northern Ireland, they are in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Both these acts state the steps employers must follow in their treatment of employees and job seekers who have a disability. While you might not think of your diabetes as a disability, you should be protected by these acts.

The Equality Act 2010 describes a disability as a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial long-term negative effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. If you take medication, the decision is based on how your impairment would affect you if you didn’t take the medication. So, to ask whether diabetes fits the description of disability, you must consider the effect of diabetes if it wasn’t being treated.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has guidance for employers and workers on the Equality Act which gives information on what the law means in practice and includes practical examples. For a more detailed description of the legislation and to see the Act itself, go the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The Equality Advisory Support Service can also provide further advice. 

The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland is where you should go for more information and advice about the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and how that applies to you in Northern Ireland.

Reasonable adjustments

Disability law is about levelling the playing field by making sure people with a disability have the same chance at a career as others. This means your employer may need to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ so you can do your job.

For example, if you have diabetes and need to eat at set times to stay on top of your blood sugar levels, having your lunch break swapped around every day on a rota could make this difficult. A reasonable adjustment could be for your employer to allow you to have your lunch break at the same time every day.

Access to Work is a government programme to help keep people with long-term conditions and disabilities in work. You should speak to them if your employer can’t or isn’t willing to make reasonable adjustments so that you can carry on working.

Time off work for illness and check-ups

Everybody needs time off work when they’re unwell or have a medical appointment – whether they have diabetes or not. Diabetes doesn’t mean you’re more likely to be ill. You’re probably taking better care of your health than someone without the condition.

You’ll need regular check-ups as part of your 15 Healthcare Essentials. Make sure your line manager understands why these checks are necessary – don’t apologise for them. 

It’s important to read your organisation’s policy on time off for medical appointments and managing long-term conditions, because the rules vary between workplaces. Try to arrange multiple appointments in the same morning or afternoon if you can and give your manager plenty of notice. 

Always seek medical attention when you’re ill. Don’t wait until it’s urgent. And keep your employer up to date with what’s happening so that they can support you in the best way possible. 

You may need time off to support someone with diabetes. Find out your employer’s policy on care leave. Talk to your manager about the condition and how you’re helping, so they understand how important it is.

Discuss options for flexible working if you need to give long-term support. And remember to look after your own emotional wellbeing – is there an employee assistance programme or in-house counsellor you can talk to?

Time off work for a diabetes education course

Going on a diabetes education course may mean time off work. 

Explain to your line manager that the course will help you manage your diabetes and mean you’re less likely to need time off in future. And you’ll have a lower risk of developing diabetes related complications that could affect your work. Some course providers, like DAFNE, have materials you can pass on to your employer that explain the benefits. 

Use our template letter to put your leave request in writing. You can ask a member of your healthcare team to write to your employer explaining why the course is important and how it can improve your health in the long term. You may have the right to go on a course under the Equality Act.

If taking time off isn’t possible, or classroom-based learning isn’t right for you, check with your healthcare team about evening, weekend or digital courses. You can also sign up to our Learning Zone for free educational support online that’s tailored to your needs.

Applying for a job with diabetes

When you apply for a new job, your potential employer will want to find out if you fit the person specification and have the necessary skills and experience for the role. If you meet the needs of the job description, you should feel confident. Having diabetes doesn’t mean you’re less likely to get the job.

For most jobs, there’s no legal obligation to tell an employer you have diabetes. The Equality Act makes it unlawful for them to ask about your health before offering you work. 

But talking about your diabetes from the start can show that you’re positive about your condition. It can even be an opportunity to give examples of how resourceful and well organised you are. 

In some cases, the organisation may ask if you have a disability. For example:

  • to find out if you need any support during the recruitment process,
  • to increase the representation of disabled people in the organisation,
  • if they have signed up to the ‘Disability Confident’ scheme, committing to offer disabled people an interview if they meet the minimum criteria for the role,
  • or to monitor how many disabled people apply for jobs.

Telling them about your diabetes shouldn’t affect your application. Any information you give them must be kept separate and confidential.

Some professions do have special requirements because of the demands of the role. The employer will need to decide whether your diabetes poses any additional risk at work. If your condition could stop you carrying out your responsibilities or make you unsafe, think about reasonable adjustments that would make it possible for you to do the job. 

If you are applying for a job that involves driving, we have information on how to apply for a licence for different vehicles.

Employers that don’t allow people with diabetes

We’ve campaigned successfully to stop employers banning people with diabetes from applying for roles. But we still have work to do.

  • Emergency services. Blanket bans have now been lifted for people with Type 1 diabetes and people with Type 2 diabetes using insulin. It’s now up to your local service to decide – they will have their own rules. For example, some NHS Ambulance Trusts have rules about people with diabetes applying for jobs as ambulance crew. You should expect to be fairly assessed against these rules by someone who understands the role and how diabetes is managed.
  • The UK armed forces are exempt from the Equality Act and have a blanket ban on employing people with diabetes.

Being self-employed with diabetes

Self-employment can seem like the easier option when you have diabetes. But you shouldn’t feel like it’s your only choice. Weigh up your options carefully and decide what will work best for you.

Being self-employed gives you more flexibility to attend appointments. And working from home means you can treat your diabetes more easily in privacy, if you prefer this. But self-employed people don’t get sick or holiday pay. And working alone can mean you lack the support of colleagues and the social benefits of teamwork.