Diabetes in the workplace

I was raised being told that I can grow up to do anything I want and can be anything I want to be.

A lot of you might not know this about me, but when I was 19 and decided I wanted to pursue a career in nursing, a nursing assistant instructor told me I couldn’t do it because I had diabetes. She said that it didn’t seem safe because I could have a low blood sugar and go unconscious at any given moment.

Now, if you’re like me now, you know that that is obviously ridiculous and simply not true. But at the time, I was young and didn’t know any better and I believed her. I went home crying because what she told me went against everything I was taught growing up: that you can do anything you set your mind to.

I was lucky enough to have great support in my life, so I had people there to tell me that she was wrong and that I should prove her wrong. And I did.

I work full time as a night shift Peds ER and trauma nurse, and I do it just fine with my diabetes.

Two things you should learn from my experience:

  • If someone tells you that you can’t do something because of your diabetes, do your research. Chances are they are wrong, because there’s not much you can’t do with diabetes. And think about this, someone was the first diabetic to do everything. So even if you “can’t” do something, maybe you’ll be the first diabetic who can.
  • Second, know your rights. There are several laws that protect you against unjust discrimination in the work place. This article from the American Diabetes Association talks about some of these. I wish I had known more about this when I was younger, because that same nursing assistant instructor said that I needed to have a physical done and get a doctor’s note to apply to the nursing assistant program. That’s actually illegal. Check out more here.

So all of this motivational talk is good and all, but how do you actually go about your daily life in the workplace with diabetes?

Don’t hide it

In any work setting, it’s important for people to know that you have diabetes. Even if you’re well controlled, we all get those freak high/low blood sugars and you need the people around you to know about your diabetes. Tell your boss, tell your coworkers that you have diabetes, and that it might require you to step away at times or take a minute for a snack.

I’m a big fan of wearing my diabetes on my sleeve (literally), so everywhere I go, people know about it. Even if  you’re not that open about it, it’s super important to make sure the people around you know about your diabetes. I think this is easiest in a one on one setting, just letting each person you work with know it’s a thing about you. It’s also important to let your boss and coworkers know what an emergency looks like and what they should do. (Like what a low blood sugar looks like for you and if they see it, to get you some juice.)

Reasonable accomodation

Your employer, by law, needs to give you the time and flexibility you need to manage your diabetes (within reason, of course). Here’s some things that the American Diabetes Association lists as common reasonable accomodations for people with diabetes:

  • Breaks to check blood glucose levels, eat a snack, take medication, or go to the bathroom
  • A place to rest until blood sugar levels become normal
  • The ability to keep diabetes supplies and food nearby
  • The ability to test blood glucose and inject insulin anywhere at work
  • If requested, a private area to test blood glucose or administer insulin
  • Modifications to no-fault attendance policies

You can read more about reasonable accomodation here. If you have an employer who is treating you unfairly, or not giving  you reasonable accomodation, there’s a place on the ADA website to ask for legal advice and help handling that situation.

Take care of yourself

I can guarantee you that you will have an easier time at work if you take care of yourself and your diabetes. If I guess at bolusing, or delay changing a pump site that I really should change, my blood sugars suffer from it (as they probably do for everyone), and in turn my work life suffers. Not that I can’t do my job with imperfect blood sugars, but I feel my best and perform my best when my blood sugars are well managed.

You know how they say you need a good work, life balance? Well you need a good work, diabetes balance too. Believe me, I know that it’s exhausting and impossible to pay 100% attention 100% of the time. It wears on us. But taking a little bit of extra time and paying extra attention to food and blood sugars will keep your head clear and let you focus on more important things at work than diabetes.

What do you eat at work?

Making healthy food choices at work will help your blood sugars be better too. It will help you feel better to succeed at your job. Take healthy to mean whatever it means to you. My blood sugars do best and I feel best with a low-carb diet. It’s not always easy, believe me. Working night shift, we always have tons of goodies around the unit! I’m definitely guilty of the occasional donut binge. But I’m also pretty consistent with eating healthy snacks and meals, which keeps my blood sugars stable so I can focus on taking care of my patients and not on what my blood sugar is doing.

Your health always comes first

Nothing is harder that sitting there with a low blood sugar at work watching your coworkers floundering. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to myself, “I already treated, I can probably get up and work.” Because I want to be there for my coworkers. But that’s not what they need. Every one of my coworkers would rather take care of things themselves for a few minutes than have something horrible to happen to me.

Never feel bad about taking time to take care of your diabetes. Nothing is worth your health. Even in the emergency department, if we have a super sick patient, I always communicate to my coworkers if I have a low blood sugar so they can get someone else in there to take care of the patient so I can take care of myself. And that’s how it should be.

We work with kids, and act like them too.

 

I know diabetics in all sorts of industries: from the medical field, to the art world, to the office. Your diabetes doesn’t have to stop you from having a career or living the life you want. Like everything else with diabetes, it just takes a little extra planning. 🙂

 

One Comment on “Diabetes in the workplace”

  1. Hi Carrisa!
    I just found your blog and this article on T1D with nursing is so helpful! I just passed my nclex in Janurary and was diagnosed oct 2018 so it’s all fairly new, the disease and nursing job. You make it seem like it’ll be so much more manageable than what other people think of when they find out about being a T1D. Thank you for sharing your experience! Peds ER must be an amazing job, I’m hoping to get into OB and rock being a T1D RN.

    Emily

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