Diabetes in the Workplace

Australia’s National Diabetes Week 2019 officially commences Sunday 14 July, so we believe it’s about time that we start raising awareness of the various symptoms of diabetes, and how diabetes can affect your ability to work safely, as well as how employers and employees can help support those with diabetes in the workplace.

Diabetes in one of the fastest growing chronic diseases with one person diagnosed every five minutes! While 1.2 million Australians have officially been diagnosed with diabetes, it’s estimated that half a million are walking around undiagnosed.

Complications in the Workplace

High blood sugar levels are toxic and because our blood reaches every tissue and organ in our body, it can have wide reaching ramifications. Below is a list of the complications caused by diabetes and their possible impact in the workplace:

Vision
  • Diabetes is the leading cause of preventable blindness in Australia.
  • Acutely high blood sugar levels can cause blurred vision, increasing the risk of incidents and errors.
  • Chronically elevated blood sugars can lead to diabetic retinopathy where tiny blood vessels rupture causing patches of vision loss. Approximately one third of Australians report having some degree of diabetic retinopathy. People often don’t realise they have “blind spots” which can be especially dangerous when driving, operating machinery or working in high risk environments.
The immune system
  • People with diabetes have impaired immune systems which means they are more likely to get sick, take longer to recover and tend to experience more complications.
The kidneys
  • Diabetic kidney disease is one of the most frequent and dangerous complications of diabetes and affects approximately one-third of people with diabetes.
  • People with kidney disease are at higher risk of complications and hospitalisation.
The heart
  • People with diabetes are two to four times more likely to develop heart disease.
  • People with heart disease are often required to take a handful of medications which may cause unintended side effects, are costly and can potentially affect their ability to work.
The brain
  • Diabetes is a risk factor for cognitive impairment and people with diabetes have a 1.5- to 2.5-fold increased risk of dementia.
  • People with diabetes are 1.5 times more likely to have a stroke than people without diabetes.
  • Forgetting instructions or losing the ability to perform executive tasks can pose risk to the individual, co-workers and the organisation.
The gut
  • Gastroparesis, which is essentially paralysis of the stomach, is a common phenomenon in people with diabetes. This can affect absorption of their food and medications, making self-management of their diabetes more complicated. It can also cause uncomfortable symptoms such as bloating, cramping, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.
The nervous system
  • High blood sugar levels can damage nerves, causing diabetic neuropathy. People can experience either numbness, tingling, pins and needles, or burning sensations in their hands or feet. This can be unpleasant and sometimes distressing, affecting their quality of life. This can also impact on their ability to perform tasks.
  • Proper footwear is extremely important to prevent unintended injury to the foot. Because blood flow can be impaired in people with diabetes, small wounds can quickly become serious infections.
The musculature
  • High blood sugar levels can cause muscle wastage and other muscle symptoms, like muscle weakness or cramping. This can may lead to sick days or inability to perform tasks. It can be particularly problematic for people working in physically demanding roles.
Managing Diabetes at Work

Diabetes can dramatically impact a person’s functional capacity, which can influence their ability to work. In addition, absenteeism among those with diabetes is 2-3 times the rate of the general population, resulting in lost productivity.

Majority of diabetes is self-managed, so many patients have full-time or consistent jobs. Therefore, it’s important that their workplace supports their needs.

Employers can support employees with diabetes in the following ways:

  • Ensure they take scheduled breaks.
  • Offer healthy food options and encourage healthy lifestyles.
  • Promote a work-life balance.
  • Provide psychological support where needed.
  • Introduce private areas in which blood glucose testing and insulin administering can be undertaken.
  • Encourage them to prepare a diabetes management plan and sick day plan.
  • Educate employees about diabetes and generate awareness in your workplace.

Health and wellness programs are also an excellent way to educate and empower people to make positive changes.

People taking medications that can cause low blood sugars need to take extra care to avoid dangerous “hypos.”. Employers should be made aware and co-workers should be trained in basic first aid in case of an event.

Unfortunately, employees have been known to run their sugars high to avoid low blood sugars partly because they are afraid it may affect their employment. This can cause them to feel low in energy and may make it difficult for them to concentrate.

Many workplaces are not aware the complexity of diabetes management so people with diabetes often struggle to make decisions regarding their care while on the job. Poorly controlled diabetes in the workplace can be an immediate hazard, as well as, increasing the risk of complications that can impact directly on their productivity.

Workplaces that promote a healthy culture have the potential to support not just people with diabetes, but anyone with, or at risk of lifestyle related disease. Establishing policies and implementing programs that support the health and well-being of employees has been shown to reduce absenteeism and increase productivity.

Resources

Workforce Health Assessors supports diabetes at work through pre-employment medicals and ongoing employee health checks. WHA organises, performs, and reports on medical assessments to help businesses mitigate health risks. We handle everything from pre-employment medicals, drug and alcohol screenings, to workplace wellness initiatives. Learn more about our employee health checks and other health assessment services.