It’s November 8th which means that it’s Day 8 of the Happy Diabetic Challenge! Today’s prompt is about diabetes and the workplace. Here are my top three tips on how to handle diabetes in a professional environment…
Diabetes can be the most annoying coworker in the world. It can interrupt the flow of my workday, breaking my concentration with a low or a high blood sugar that needs correcting. It can trigger alerts and alarms of all sorts that catch the attention of my other coworkers, prompting questions and confusion. And it can be a very tricky subject to bring up to management/bosses. I want them to know that for the most part, I peacefully coexist with my diabetes, but they should expect some (infrequent) occasions in which it will take my attention away from work temporarily so that I can address whatever situation I might be experiencing.
It can be really hard to walk that fine line between letting coworkers and bosses know that diabetes isn’t something they should worry about most of the time, but that it is kind of a big deal because it’s not going away any time soon.
Since joining the workforce ten years ago, I’ve had to navigate just about every situation you could possibly imagine when it comes to dealing with diabetes at work. I’ve made mistakes and learned lessons that helped me come up with the following three tips on how to navigate diabetes and work:
1) Tell at least one other person at work about diabetes as soon as possible. Through conversation with other T1Ds, I realize that the whole “I-have-diabetes-and-it’s-not-a-super-big-deal-but-I-do-have-some-special-needs-that-I-can-almost-totally-promise-won’t-interfere-with-my-work-performance” talk can be daunting, especially when it feels like your career is on the line. But I can’t emphasize enough how much it’s helped me by approaching the topic immediately before or after starting a new job.
Granted, I’ve only had two jobs – the one I worked when I was in high school at the local movie theater, and my current job as an editor – but I made sure that my diabetes was known from the outset. I got the job at the movie theater thanks to a cousin who also worked there (yay Caitlin), and while I struggle to remember details, she may have mentioned it to the general manager before my interview. It didn’t affect the hiring process whatsoever, seeing as I think my work ethic mattered more to the GM than anything else. Regardless, I can still remember talking to the assistant GM (who I’d be dealing with almost every shift I worked there) and letting her know the basics. I reassured her that I would be able to keep up with everyone else, and I figured I’d just have to prove it over time. And I sure did – I quickly garnered a reputation as an “A.P.P.” (all-purpose person) who could sell concessions, rip tickets, sweep up theaters, and swap out movie posters and times with just as much speed, if not more, than anyone else who worked there.
And with my current job, my diabetes actually came up during the interview. That’s because my resume highlighted my experience writing for an online diabetes magazine. I was asked how that came about and I remember launching into an explanation. Neither of my interviewers seemed fazed; on the contrary, they were fascinated by my obvious knowledge on it and pleased that I’d had some level of professional writing experience. Clearly, I made an impression on them…because what started out as a summer internship evolved into a full-time job at the company and I’m still there today!
So I guess I’d sum up the whole diabetes conversation by saying that it’s as big of a deal as you make it. If you approach it nonchalantly, then others will probably treat it similarly. By contrast, if you’re sweating bullets and can’t really describe what your diabetes means to your prospective employer, then they might start to doubt you when you say that it won’t hinder your work performance. Keep calm and keep all lines of communication open on the diabetes front and I bet that the odds are in your favor.
2) Keep a diabetes supply stash somewhere – anywhere – and make sure that at least one other person knows how to find it. I cannot emphasize enough how first-hand experience with this taught me that it’s crucial that others know how they can help you when hypoglycemia comes a calling. Without getting into too much detail to maintain a semblance of anonymity, a coworker from one of my gigs also has T1D. This fellow T1D experienced a severe low blood sugar one day, and the people around the T1D didn’t know how to react. Luckily, someone thought to reach out to me, and after my colleague described the T1D’s symptoms, it dawned on me that we were dealing with something pretty serious. I was able to get to them in time, but when I searched around for the other T1D’s glucometer, I realized I didn’t know how to use this particular model – and what was worse was that I couldn’t find the fingerstick device. I remember running back to grab my supplies, using a fresh lancet to check the other T1D’s blood sugar, and gasping when a 26 appeared on the screen. Things happened very quickly after that: Someone called 911, a few people came over to help me try to pour regular soda down the incoherent T1D’s throat, and I tried not to panic.
I’m happy to say that all ended well; the T1D recovered in full and thanked me profusely for my help the next day. And then it became a policy to have an emergency stash and make others aware of its location and how to use the various things in it. It went quietly unsaid that if we had known where the T1D’s supplies were kept in the first place, then perhaps we never would’ve needed the ambulance to show up, but the bottom line is preparation is key. Just get some supplies together and keep them wherever they’ll be safe. Label them with things like “do not touch – emergency T1D supplies” so nobody is tempted to lay a grubby paw on any sugary sweets that might be in there.
3) Turn innocuous comments into teachable moments. Oooh, I can’t even begin to comprehend how many straight-up stupid comments people have made over the years in regards to my diabetes…here’s a sampling of ones I can think of off the top of my head, followed by the somewhat less-than-calm responses that I gave:
Molly’s diabetes is the reason why she’s so cold around the office all the time.
Um, no, it has to do with the fact that my desk is directly under a vent that blows ice-cold air on me all day long.
Molly, you can’t eat that popcorn or drink from the soda fountain – there’s sugar in there!
ACTUALLY, I can and I will eat that popcorn. It has carbs, but I can take insulin for them. And when I’m drinking regular soda from the fountain, that probably means that my blood sugar is low, in which case I desperately need fast-acting carbs.
Molly, you have diabetes and you’re always baking sweets! You can’t eat those!
OMG *palm, meet face* I really enjoy baking just as you might enjoy watching a particular TV show or gardening. It’s a hobby of mine. And guess what? Just because I have diabetes doesn’t mean I can’t indulge on the treats I make! I just have to rely on portion control and taking the right amount of insulin.
Molly, you’re beeping again – does that mean you’re going to explode?! LOLOLOLOL.
NO DAMMIT I’M NOT GOING TO EXPLODE AND I’M SICK OF THAT JOKE. *Ahem* Very funny, but those beeps and alarms are nothing to worry about. It’s just a reminder that my insulin pump will need to be changed in a few hours, or that my blood sugar is creeping above/below my target thresholds.
Okay, I think that’s enough of a sampling – you get the idea. Basically, my advice is to treat any ignorant comments with a smile and the truth. I think that one of the best ways to fight against diabetes stigma is to take the time to explain things to people who just don’t get it or who aren’t familiar with it. More often than not, what starts out as a ridiculous comment turns into a genuine conversation in which I can help someone learn about diabetes, and then it turns into a win-win.
Diabetes in the workplace is one of those subjects that I could go on and on about (clearly). I guess the most important thing is to be honest and open to conversation about it. When people doubt your ability to do your job well with diabetes, prove ’em wrong by showing that it doesn’t prevent you from doing anything – it just means you’ve got an extra thing to consider when making everyday decisions. NBD, right?