With diabetes likely to become more prevalent in future, organisations must ensure employees are able to manage the condition effectively while at work, in order to reduce diabetes-related absence. Ian Wharton offers some advice for employers who are unsure where to start.
Businesses are experiencing more long-term sickness absences than ever before. Official statistics show that 2.5 million people were unable to work due to a chronic condition in November 2022. This has been compounded by the pandemic and rising rates of chronic disease in the under-40s.
Diabetes is the second most common contributor to long-term sickness absence. It’s one of the most prevalent forms of chronic disease with roughly 10% of the global adult population living with the condition. This is around double the number of people who experienced it in 1980.
Diabetes has become an unavoidable challenge for any large employer. World Diabetes Day, which took place on 14 November, should have prompted organisations to examine the best ways they can support their employees with diabetes. While not often at the top of the wellbeing agenda, the condition presents measurable business impact with the WHO calculating that diabetes-related GDP losses between 2011 and 2030 will reach £1.43 trillion.
Here are five recommendations employers and occupational health professionals can support employees living with diabetes.:
1. Enable flexible working
Every company, irrespective of scale, is still finding its way through flexible working. These conversations remain largely focused on the balancing of productivity and cost, and what’s often absent from the discussion is what hybrid or four-day-week models mean to those living with long-term conditions.
Diabetes is often referred to as a ‘modifiable disease’ and in some circumstances can be managed without medication or serious intervention, but this takes careful planning and access to resources. Many people living with the condition will require medication to be taken throughout the working day. Some will be observing their blood glucose levels, which can be an ‘invisible’ process via a continuous glucose monitor (a small white device on the back of the arm) or the less discrete finger-prick testing. There are also several crucial regular tests, such as HbA1c blood tests, which need to be conducted by clinicians and occur as often as every three months. It is these tests that can spot emergent trends to reduce the risk of complications and long-term absence.
Flexible working policies can help people with diabetes manage their condition in privacy. For many, these policies will help lift the psychological burden that they’re putting more weight on their team’s shoulders by having to ask for extra breaks or time off for healthcare appointments.
2. Developing open cultures around health
It will always be the decision of the individual to tell their employer if they are living with diabetes. However, better manager and employer understanding of the condition and its implications can make conversations easier and improve health outcomes. Despite its prevalence, it is a largely misunderstood condition.
Like anyone struggling with their health, stress levels will be higher when at work. Diabetes comes with the added complexity as one of the more stigmatised conditions due to its assumed cause of poor lifestyle choices. This is far from always the case. One in six working people with diabetes feel they’ve been discriminated against by their employer because of their diabetes. Small changes in the workplace may have a significant positive effect.
3. Educate employees
Diabetes is a complex disease and comes in several different forms. Type 1 diabetes is not linked to age or being overweight, type 2 diabetes has the possibility of being put into remission with good care, and gestational diabetes can occur in women during pregnancy. A good place to start is by knowing the basics of diabetes, and supporting colleagues by being aware of the signs and symptoms or providing educational courses.
Employers without the funds to invest in educational courses can still help. That can be as simple as sending an email to the whole company referring to awareness days like World Diabetes Day, with links to educational content. They could also find out whether any of their employees with diabetes would be happy to act as an ambassador and point of contact for any questions colleagues, helping to normalise living with diabetes in the workplace.
While many people do not consider diabetes to be a disability, the law states that it often is. This is because long-term conditions that are poorly treated can severely affect someone’s ability to do day-to-day things.”
Employers may also want to consider encouraging their employees who have diabetes to participate in educational courses, in particular to understand the importance of regular HbA1c tests and retinal screening to avoid complications.
4. Offering healthcare benefits
People with diabetes can access care through the NHS, but private healthcare services can provide extra help. For those living with type 2 diabetes, lifestyle changes and weight loss can put the disease into remission, with some studies showing people can live symptom-free for up to 15 years. Providing subsidised or free access to programmes that support healthy living and better nutrition can make a significant impact on someone’s quality of life.
Unfortunately, most private health insurance today doesn’t offer support for the day-to-day management of long-term conditions. There are, however, products available that can be added to corporate benefit packages. For example, you can provide digital platforms, like ours at Aide Health, to your employees to fill this gap. These platforms often help both the individual and their clinical team monitor and manage chronic disease in unison.
5. Assess risk
While many people do not consider diabetes to be a disability, the law states that it often is. This is because long-term conditions that are poorly treated can severely affect someone’s ability to do day-to-day things. Employers may have a legal obligation to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ so someone can manage their diabetes at work.
Employers should consider:
- The person’s current treatment and condition status
- The number of breaks that person can take throughout the day
- Providing special equipment as necessary
- Work activities that might affect the person’s condition, like those that might put them at risk of low blood sugar or hypoglycaemia
- That added stress can slow down recovery
Diabetes is becoming more prevalent and will present a rising challenge to employers over the next decade. Organisations that best support their employees will provide better working environments and retain their best talent, while avoiding unnecessary absences.