ADA & Disabilities, HR Management

Diabetes at Work: Why Should Employers Care?

The CDC estimates that approximately 9.3% of the U.S. population has diabetes (as of 2014)[i]. This equates to nearly 30 million people and clearly is something that will affect most employers. An individual with diabetes is at higher risk for blindness, kidney failure, heart disease, stroke, and more[ii].

Given the prevalence of diabetes, it’s nearly inevitable that employers will—either knowingly or unknowingly—employ someone who has diabetes at some point. Employers need to be aware of what this means in the workforce. Here are some considerations:

  • Employees with diabetes will be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act and may need accommodations to manage this chronic condition. For example, employees with diabetes may need to be accommodated in terms of taking breaks to eat before their blood sugar gets too low or taking breaks to administer medication during the workday. They may also have more regular medical appointments than other employees or may suffer from complications.
  • Employees with diabetes will also qualify for Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave (if otherwise qualified). This may come into play with diabetes management (such as when dealing with bouts of high or low blood sugar or for continued treatment), or for handling complications from the disease.
  • Type 2 diabetes can sometimes be positively impacted via lifestyle changes. This is relevant for employee wellness initiatives through an employer-sponsored wellness program. Employer wellness programs could also offer blood glucose screening.
  • Employers may be concerned for employee safety if an employee with diabetes is in a safety-sensitive role. (There is no cause for concern in a non-safety-sensitive role.) The primary concern would be if there is any risk of the employee becoming severely disoriented or incapacitated while working—which would only be the case if a medical professional notes there is a risk of severe low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). However, the employer needs to also understand that there should not be cause for concern unless there has been an ongoing demonstrated problem. Diabetes can be managed to avoid safety issues in most cases. Even if an employee experiences an isolated case of low blood sugar while at work, this alone should not be cause for concern. In the absence of a demonstrated ongoing problem, an employer should not discriminate against an individual simply because he or she has diabetes. Even with multiple instances, if a root cause is found and corrected (such as a change in insulin dosage), it still should not be cause for concern. Undue concern—to the extent of taking away responsibilities—can appear discriminatory and is often not warranted.

Tomorrow we’ll look at more tips for handling diabetes in the workplace.

Editor’s note: There is 2017 report now available here: https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pdfs/data/statistics/national-diabetes-statistics-report.pdf

[i] [ii] https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pdfs/data/2014-report-estimates-of-diabetes-and-its-burden-in-the-united-states.pdf