Diabetes in the Workplace: A Supervisor's Guide

Understanding the employee’s rights and your responsibilities

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Diabetes in the workplace presents challenges for both the employee and the supervisor.

Long before I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, I experienced diabetes in the workplace. As a first-time supervisor, I found out one of my employees had diabetes. At that point in my life I didn’t know much about diabetes. But as a supervisor, I was concerned about the health and safety of this person, especially since he was working graveyard shift with very few people around the data center.

So, I did something that will probably shock all the HR professionals reading this. I initiated a conversation about diabetes with the employee.

It was very low key. We were the only two people in the room at the time. I sat down next to him to have a chat. We were big on “managing by wandering around” at the time. So, having a supervisor sit down for a chat was an expected part of the daily work routine.

At some point in the conversation I pointed to his medical alert bracelet and asked him about it. He said he had diabetes. I asked him what I should know about that. He said he couldn’t think of anything. Then I asked him what should happen if he ran into trouble with his diabetes. He told me he’d eat some hard candy and be okay.

That was the end of the conversation. I had to accept that he really didn’t want to talk about it. And you know what? Diabetes never came up again.

But I totally understand how having an employee who is living with diabetes can be concerning.

What can a supervisor do?

You have to understand the employee’s rights as well as your responsibilities under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA limits the situations where an employer can ask an employee directly about diabetes. These limitations are aimed at preventing employment discrimination. And this is not an invitation to ask the employee about diabetes in an indirect manner.

You can read about the ADA and diabetes online. But if you have any questions about what to do consult with your HR department. They can help you understand the law, your company’s policies, and your responsibilities.

What if an employee brings up diabetes?

An employee with diabetes has the option of disclosing that fact at work or not. It’s most likely a disclosure will happen when the employee is seeking reasonable accommodation.

Here are a few things you, as a supervisor, can do when this happens.

Don’t panic. Hopefully, you’ve talked with HR about what you can and cannot do in these circumstances and you are prepared for this conversation.

Be human. Approach the conversation from the standpoint of wanting to make sure that employees have what they need to be able to do the job safely and stay healthy. This isn’t the time to talk about work performance or productivity.

Be respectful. Take your cues from the employee when it comes to the tone of the conversation. Keep this conversation confidential. You’ll need to share the key points with HR so that reasonable accommodation can be arranged. HR can determine if any others (e.g., other supervisors) need to know.

Be honest. Let the employee know that you need to work with HR to put reasonable accommodations in place. If an employee brings up something that you have no control over (e.g., the cost of health insurance) let him or her know that you will pass the concern on to HR but that’s not your area of responsibility. Then, be sure to make good on your promise.

Be an advocate for your employees. Work with HR to make sure that reasonable accommodation is made in a timely manner. Encourage HR to respond directly to any other diabetes-related concerns or issues the employee brings up.

No reason for doubt

Diabetes in the workplace is a fact of life. It’s probably more common that you realize. Plenty of people living with diabetes get through the workday without any problems or predicaments.

So, if you find that one of your employees has diabetes, there is no reason to doubt that they can do the job safely and perform to standards. You, as the supervisor, may be called upon to provide reasonable accommodation or it may never come up at all.

See more helpful articles:

4 Things to Consider When Disclosing Diabetes at Work

Women Who Work Long Hours Have Higher Diabetes Risk

Work-Related Stress: Causes, Signs, and Symptoms

How Does Shift Work Impact Your Health?