4 Things to Consider When Disclosing Diabetes at Work

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Whether you’re newly diagnosed, new to the job, or starting a new treatment, you may want to think about disclosing your diabetes in your workplace.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) diabetes is considered a disability. This designation makes certain legal rights and accommodations available to you as a person with a disability in the workplace.

But what effect will disclosing your diabetes have? Will letting people know make it easier for you to manage your self-care? Or will it expose you to unwelcome attention?

Here are a few things to consider when deciding whether to disclose your diabetes in your workplace.

Consider the pluses and the minuses of disclosing diabetes

Disclosing diabetes in the workplace will most likely be a mixed bag.

On the plus side, once you disclose diabetes your employer is required to provide you with “reasonable accommodations” so that you can perform the essential functions of your job. Also, you are protected from being terminated due to diabetes unless your state of health presents a “direct threat” to safety in the workplace.

Reasonable accommodations will be based on your specific, documented needs. It can include things like:

  • Access to a private place where you can monitor your blood glucose and take insulin shots

  • Extra or specifically scheduled breaks for monitoring, resting, eating, and/or taking medication

  • Shifting marginal tasks to another employee

  • Modified work schedule or shift rotation

Your doctor may have to document the need for specific accommodations before your employer will put them in place. And employers are not required to make any accommodation that results in significant difficulty or expense.

On the minus side, disclosure can make you feel vulnerable. Depending on your work environment, disclosure can make you the subject of office gossip or discussion. You may feel that you are being stigmatized by other people’s comments or assumptions about your abilities.

Think about the social climate at your workplace. Do people tease each other? Are people nosey? Do people gossip about their coworkers?

While you have legal protections from employment discrimination, there are a lot of ways to make someone feel uncomfortable or unwelcome that do not meet the legal definition of discrimination. How would you handle being the target of these unwelcoming behaviors?

Who in the workplace should know about your diabetes?

Having someone at work who knows you have diabetes, and what to do if you need medical assistance, can provide peace of mind and a sense of safety.

Your supervisor(s) and the human relations department will most likely know that you have diabetes and that diabetes is considered a disability. They are responsible for making sure that ADA requirements are met in the workplace.

Your employer must keep your medical information confidential. However, there are some situations when they can disclose a disability. These include disclosing your diabetes:

  • To supervisors and managers so that they can provide reasonable accommodations or meet work restrictions

  • To first aid personnel or first responders in an emergency or when you need some other health-related assistance

  • To individuals investigating legal compliance with ADA and similar state or local laws

  • When the information is needed for workers’ compensation or insurance purposes

The question is whether you want everyone, or just a few people, in the workplace to know that you have diabetes. Who can you trust to help you in an emergency or even on a daily basis?

What information do you want disclosed about your diabetes?

Being open about having diabetes and what it takes to manage day-to-day life presents an opportunity for education and advocacy. You will have the chance to bust myths and counter stigma. You may find that your coworkers are surprisingly supportive.

But publicly disclosing that you have diabetes can also be exhausting. You may be faced with people endlessly asking you questions about diabetes, how you treat it, what it feels like, are you afraid you’ll end up with really sick. Then there are the people who know someone, an uncle or a grandparent, who had a foot amputated or went blind because of their diabetes.

Consider what information and how much detail you feel comfortable sharing with your coworkers and supervisors.

Define your boundaries up front

When faced with potentially uncomfortable situations it’s best to prepare in advance. When it comes to disclosing diabetes in the workplace think about what you do and don’t feel comfortable sharing.

Also think about the situations you are willing to discuss diabetes. Are you okay talking about it to your coworkers as a group, for example in a staff meeting, or would you prefer to discuss it one-on-one? Of course, there’s always the possibility that a situation you didn’t consider will come up. But by thinking it out in advance you’re less likely to be taken aback.