Many conditions can cause health issues in the workplace and long-term absence from work. One condition that is becoming increasingly prevalent is diabetes.
Diabetes is the result of the body being unable to break down glucose into energy, either because the body doesn’t produce enough insulin to metabolise glucose or because the insulin produced by the body doesn’t work properly.
Figures from Diabetes UK show that since 1996 the number of people with diabetes in the UK has more than doubled from 1.4 million to 3.5 million. By 2025, it is estimated that five million people will have diabetes in the UK.
Types of diabetes
Type 1 diabetes: Develops when the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas have been destroyed so the body can’t maintain normal glucose levels. This accounts for only around 10% of all cases of diabetes and is controlled through regular, life-long insulin injections.
Type 2 diabetes: This occurs when the body is not making enough insulin and is most common in middle aged or older people. However, it is becoming increasingly common in younger, overweight people and is often linked to lifestyle choices. To some extent, type 2 diabetes can be controlled through diet and exercise, although many people with type 2 diabetes will require medication to control glucose levels.
Diabetes – warning signs
Certain symptoms can suggest the onset of diabetes, and these include:
- feeling very thirsty;
- urinating more frequently, particularly at night;
- increased hunger;
- feeling tired;
- weight loss or loss of muscle bulk;
- slow-healing cuts or wounds;
- blurred vision;
- frequent b0uts of thrush.
Risk factors for diabetes
Type 1 diabetes:
- Family history: Having a parent or sibling with the condition.
- Genetics: The presence of certain genes indicates an increased risk of developing type 1 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes:
- Family history: Those with a close relative with type 2 diabetes are more likely to develop the condition.
- Weight: Being overweight (a BMI of 25+) or obese (a BMI of 30+) increases a person’s chance of developing type 2 diabetes.
- Age: ‘the risk of developing type 2 diabetes increases with age.
- Ethnicity: People of African-Caribbean, Black African or South Asian descent are two to four times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
Complications associated with diabetes
- Heart disease and stroke: Coronary heart disease is the cause of death for 80% of people with diabetes and increases the risk of developing other cardiovascular problems such as heart attack, stroke and narrowing of the arteries.
- Eye damage: Diabetes can damage the blood vessels of the retina and increase the risk of other conditions such as cataracts and glaucoma.
- Kidney damage: The kidneys, which filter waste from the body, can be damaged by diabetes, which can lead to kidney failure or kidney disease.
- Foot problems: People with diabetes have an increased risk of ulcers and damage to the feet because diabetes can damage the blood vessels and peripheral nerves.
- Skin and mouth conditions: Bacterial infections (e.g. styes, carbuncles or infections around the nails), fungal infections (e.g. athlete’s foot and ring worm) and itching (particularly in the lower parts of the legs).
Diabetes in the workplace
Many people can manage their diabetes without it affecting their work. However, it is important for employers to be aware of the risks for employees with diabetes. Some employees (especially those with type 2 diabetes) may struggle with undertaking shift work as changes to the timing of medication and diet can affect how stable their condition is. For example, if a diabetic person’s blood sugar falls below a certain level, they can suffer from a hypoglycaemic episode, and can feel faint, weak, and even lose consciousness.
Employers should undertake a risk assessment, with input from the employee, to ensure they are prepared for such situations. The assessment should include consideration of the following:
- How stable the individual’s condition is and the type of treatment they are receiving
- Whether the person will have access to regular meal breaks, and the opportunity to test their blood glucose level at work.
- The level and regularity of activity undertaken in the course of the person’s duties as this affects the level of glucose in the blood.
- Activity undertaken by the employee that might place them at risk if they were to become dizzy or lose consciousness due to very low blood sugar, called hypoglycaemia or ‘hypos’.
- Whether or not, in light of the above, lone working, night working or other high risk activities, such as driving can be safely undertaken.
Support and guidance about work and health can be sought from Fit for Work, which offers free, online work-related health advice and guidance to anyone looking for advice and support about an existing case of sickness absence, or about issues that may result in sickness absence. Visit the Fit for Work website or call the free telephone advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh). There is a separate service running in Scotland (0800 019 2211).