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Having Diabetes, Going to Work

separator When you have a job and you have diabetes, there can be challenges, for sure. You definitely have to be able to plan ahead for certain things, like testing your blood sugar and having snacks when you need them. You also need to be able to gauge which co-workers you should tell about your diabetes, and which ones you don’t need to tell at all. 

In some cases, it’s also necessary to be a sort of educator about diabetes, explaining to your boss and others you work with how it affects your work (if at all), what to do if there’s an emergency, etc. And you also need to be able to educate yourself about your rights on the job, just in case anybody resists letting you have the time and space you need to take care of yourself. 

Wearing all those hats takes discipline and planning. But it’s something people with diabetes do every day. 

Planning for your own needs
You need to carve out time for

  • Meals
  • Snacks
  • Testing your blood sugar

It can take some planning ahead. If you work far away from where you keep your personal belongings, you may need to make arrangements to have your snacks and testing supplies somewhere nearby. If your work environment is a little hectic and people eat lunch on the fly, and sometimes don’t even take lunch, you still have to take the time you need to eat meals, even if you’re working on a tight deadline.

Telling people at work
Do the people you work with need to know you have diabetes? A lot of that is up to you. If you have trusting relationships with them, you may want to tell them, especially if low blood sugar happens to you fairly frequently. It’s good for others to know what the signs of low blood sugar are, and what they can do to help you. Having a few people in your work environment who know about this kind of thing can be helpful for you. 

In most cases, letting people you work with know what you’re up to creates a trusting atmosphere. It can be strange to have your co-worker disappear regularly if you have no idea what the reason is. Most people want the best for their friends and colleagues, and chances are good that they wouldn’t have a problem with your need to take breaks. 

On the other hand, if you don’t feel comfortable telling people, that’s up to you. Some people are discriminatory about illness, especially an illness they don’t understand. If you want to keep your diabetes to yourself, that’s your right. 

Knowing your rights
It’s nice if you can take care of yourself at work without having supervisors or co-workers second-guessing your right or your need to do so. Sometimes, it’s a little more complex than that. It could be that your supervisor knows nothing about diabetes. And people with diabetes often look perfectly healthy, which can be misleading for those who don’t know what it takes to keep your condition under control. Or it could be that you have a co-worker or two who are jealous of your time away from work for testing blood sugar or grabbing a snack. 

You may need to get official with these people, and explain to them what your rights are. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you are allowed to ask for “reasonable accommodations” to take care of your diabetes, and employers are required to grant those accommodations. Testing blood sugar, eating at regular times and taking time off for doctor’s appointments fall in the range of what is reasonable. Additionally, your boss is not allowed to tell anybody else—without your permission—why you need these scheduled breaks. 

But remember—not everybody knows what diabetes is. It’s possible that some of the people you work with have only a vague notion. They may think that all you have to do is avoid eating dessert. Sometimes, all it takes is a little explaining on your part, and that can be better than talking about laws and your rights. 

Working within your company’s policies
It’s possible—and important—to look out for your own needs while still going along with the policies of your company. For example: 

  • Be sure to give as much notice as you’re requested to for doctor’s appointments.
  • Try to schedule appointments when it’s most convenient for your co-workers.
  • Make sure you don’t disappear at inconvenient times to test your blood sugar or to get a snack.

In other words, it’s best to blend into your work day as much as possible, not making a fuss about the things you have to do to take care of yourself. That way, you’ll be more likely to earn respect from co-workers and supervisors. And they’ll be more likely to be easy when you absolutely need time away.

Diabetes Forecast, August 2003; Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders.
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