Diabetes at Work: Self-Advocacy, Management Plan Tips + Community Stories
Diabetes affects every aspect of your life, including your job. Whether your diabetes is visible because of a beeping continuous glucose monitor (CGM), you need to step away to treat low blood glucose (BGL) or give yourself an insulin shot—chances are that diabetes-related stress peaks at work.
However, several factors, like knowing your rights or having a high or low blood sugar action plan, can help reduce diabetes management anxiety and improve your overall work experience.
Your rights at work
In the workplace, type 1 and type 2 diabetes are considered disabilities. This classification gives you specific rights, such as:
- Protecting you from termination (unless you’re considered a “direct threat”).
- Ensuring you’re able to be hired or promoted.
- Being entitled to certain accommodations to do your job effectively.
- Providing you with health insurance.
Particular laws protect you from discrimination in the workplace, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. You are not required to disclose your diabetes, and your employer can’t ask about health conditions you might have. However, it’s important to consider that having people around you who know about your diabetes and how to help you if you experience a high or low blood sugar event could save your life.
Managing highs and lows at work
Diabetes doesn’t stop at work—you’re bound to experience high and low blood sugar levels at some point. However, there are steps you can take to be proactive and handle these blood sugar events more comfortably and confidently.
In case of low BGL, consider these questions:
- Can I keep snacks with me at all times?
- Where can I store snacks at work?
- Do I have extra snacks in my car?
- Have I set a calendar reminder to check my snack supply regularly?
- Do I have glucagon at work, and do my coworkers know how and when to use it?
- Are my coworkers aware of the symptoms of hypoglycemia?
In case of high BGL, ask yourself:
- How can I manage high BGL during a meeting? Is there a way to pause the meeting, or would it be better to step out for a few minutes?
- Where can I keep my insulin while working outside?
- Can I keep water with me throughout the day?
- Would an insulin pump or multiple daily injections (MDIs) work better for me with my job?
- Do I have extra supplies with me at all times?
- Are my coworkers aware of the signs of hyperglycemia?
In either case, it’s wise to have an extra blood glucose monitor (BGM) or CGM with you and ensure your emergency contact information is current.
Managing diabetes at work: stories from the community
The reality of managing diabetes at work looks different for everyone. Beyond Type 1 sat down with diabetes community members Eric Williamson and Matt Rye to discuss their experiences managing diabetes at work and the advice they’d give others.
Eric’s story: overcoming obstacles to return to firefighting
Eric Williamson is a fire captain paramedic who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D) in 2015 at the age of 33. Eric told his fire department within days of his diagnosis to keep himself, his crew and the public safe.
After being diagnosed, Eric’s fire department wasn’t sure how to move forward. Though his team was aware of how delicate and uncertain diabetes can be, as diabetes emergencies are among the fire station’s most common calls, they were unsure how to handle it internally.
Eric’s occupational medicine doctor required him to be removed from his job as a first responder and placed in an administrative position because of the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) 1582 standards, which recommend six months of observation after a medical diagnosis. Because of his occupational health and safety background, Eric was familiar with these standards. Still, he had to become his own advocate.
“You can’t let people put you in a box,” Eric says. “I knew only I could be my own advocate with my employer and doctors. Initially, I had to fight and prove to them that I could personally and professionally manage and handle the daily burden of T1D.”
During these six months, Eric worked closely with his endocrinologist and diabetes educator to manage his diabetes. After he met the NFPA 1582 standards, he returned to his role as a first responder.
Today, Eric deals with uncertain meal times, sleep schedules and workloads, requiring daily planning to maintain his health with diabetes. Eric’s diabetes management includes having a “go bag” available on the fire engine and a smaller bag attached to his firefighting protective gear. Both packs include fast-acting glucose sources and an extra BGM.
“It does take daily work, both physical and mental, but the benefits of that work are priceless,” Eric says.
Matt’s story: transparency helps everyone
Much like Eric, Matt Rye, a union steamfitter living with diabetes, has to figure out his path to navigating it as smoothly as possible in the workplace. Part of this for Matt includes open communication and raising diabetes awareness with his colleagues.
Matt is open to discussing his diabetes at work, which tends to come up naturally during lunchtime. He says he’s never experienced a negative reaction when telling his coworkers about diabetes. Whenever Matt needs to treat low or high BGLs, he simply tells them what’s going on.
Matt says telling his coworkers has benefited him in multiple ways and has taught him how to stand up for himself.
“I’m not ignoring a huge part of who I am due to the fear of the opinions of others,” Matt says.
Matt’s story attests to the benefits of disclosing diabetes at work, but everyone has to decide for themselves. If you’d like to share but don’t want to tell your whole team, consider sharing with one or two coworkers you trust.
Crafting your own stress-management and self-advocacy plans
There isn’t one correct way to handle your approach to diabetes at work—you must do what feels good for you. Eric and Matt’s experiences provide some examples and clarify what that process could look like.
Knowing your rights as an employee with diabetes is extremely important in crafting your diabetes stress-management and self-advocacy work plans. Discussing your plan with folks already on your team can be equally beneficial. These people might be your close friends, family, spouse or even members of the diabetes community.
Connect with like-minded people who understand the ins and outs of life with diabetes on the Beyond Type 1 Community app. Dive into conversations around diabetes at work, stressors, self-advocacy and much more!
Educational content for newly diagnosed people with diabetes is made possible with support from Abbott, makers of the Freestyle Libre 3 system, an active partner of Beyond Type 1 at the time of publication. Editorial control rests solely with Beyond Type 1.