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Guest Post: Diabetes at Work.

When I asked folks in the DOC if they’d be willing to lend their voices and perspectives for a guest blog post, I was excited to hear from Susannah (aka @bessiebelle on Instagram and Twitter).  Susannah grew up in South Australia and is now working as a lawyer in Cambridge, in the UK.  She was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes during the course of her last year of high school (2000) and is currently using a Dexcom with her Animas Vibe insulin pump.  

Today, she’s taking over SUM to talk about diabetes in the work place, and how to handle the moments when discretion is preferred but diabetes still needs attention, and she’s looking from tips from our community on handling diabetes in the workplace.

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A significant aspect of my life with diabetes which I often feel is ignored is how it fits into my career. Diabetes goes with me to work everyday and has seen the highs (completing deals) and lows (being at work at 2am) of work and as well as sugar!

When I started to write this post about working life with diabetes I was armed with a list of anecdotes but I didn’t expect life to serve up another example of when the two worlds collide. One of the frustrating things that any diabetic knows is it can always throw you something unexpected.

After a seemingly average Sunday afternoon gym session Monday morning last week saw me battling a hypo that just wouldn’t respond (to glucose tabs, reduced basal plus bread with strawberry jam for good measure). With heart still racing and a foggy brain at 9am I emailed my boss to let him know I was somewhat delayed but I’d be in soon. Moments like this make me glad that I’ve been open with my boss about being a type 1 diabetic but also make me anxious that I will be judged as less capable because of it.

Am I the only one who feels like that?

The emotional side of diabetes creeps in too easily. After an experience like that morning I’m left worried that I’ll be judged because of it. Being late on Monday morning is the least of it… We all know there are the doctors’ appointments (6 monthly checks, annual reviews, eye checks, and other specialists – always longer than expected and involving long times in waiting rooms), hypos setting you back (sometimes only a few minutes, other times for much longer), pump sites pulled out causing hassle and even spurting fingers resulting in blood stained shirts! Some of these take up more time than others but they all intrude on what might otherwise be a normal day in the office. Something that I’m acutely reminded of when I’m filling in my 7 hours of 6 minute units of time each day.

I fear hypos at work more than anywhere else. I don’t want to explain why I’m sweating at my desk like I’ve been for a run or to be faced by a deadline but struggling to gather my thoughts clearly. I don’t feel any more comfortable in this situation now than I did when I first started work as a law clerk 10 years ago. Luckily, for many years I had the luxury of my own office and the ability to shut the door gave a level of privacy when required. Recently, I moved to an open plan firm and I am having to reconsider many things I took for granted with a (glass) door… pump site changes at my desk are a thing of the past (cue a few panicked mornings hastily inserting a new site and refilling so that I won’t have to later). I’ve been lucky not to ever have a hypo in a meeting, but this is not without taking care. Meetings with clients or all parties to negotiate a document are a balancing act of starting the meeting high enough not to crash but not so high that I feel sluggish. (and that’s not considering the blood sugar spikes from stress).

Thankfully there are the comical moments – taking a draft document to my boss and having to explain the red smudges on the print out (after 15 years it’s fairly easy to squeeze blood from my favourite fingers… I tested as I typed this and got blood on cue!); being in a meeting with the same boss and having my pump alarm go off – after a quizzical expression from a colleague my boss calmly commented “Don’t worry, Susannah’s bra is ringing!” Needless to say my pump alarms are strictly on vibrate these days.

There are moments that call for advocacy whether I feel like it or not. In a previous job I was surprised when HR requested that I remove my spare insulin from the work fridge or alternatively hide it in a container so other people didn’t have to worry about ‘contamination’. Why?! To this day I haven’t quite figured out who raised the concern (or why?!) but I defiantly ignored that request (with colleagues’ support) and also politely explained to HR that it was not a risk to anyone’s sandwich.

I’m always interested to hear how others handle disclosure with their employers (as well as see photos of their diabetes supplies stashed in their desk), and am always surprised by people who manage not to disclose it. I’m yet to perfect my ‘I’m busy having a hypo so please don’t ask me a question face’ so disclosure is what feels best for me. It may not be for someone else (YDMV). In contemplating my days in the office I realise I have it pretty easy if the worst is getting blood on a contract! I’m in awe of the many people who manage their diabetes while being responsible for others (whether a mother, teacher, nurse or doctor, just to list a few).

How do you handle your diabetes at work? Any tips on how to stress less?

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. RC #

    It’s not something I advertise or something I actively hide. As someone who’s also a lawyer, I find that’s been a bit of an additional challenge. People want a lawyer who’s knowledgeable and can take charge of a legal problem, and anything (hello diabetes!) that may be viewed as a potential weakness can undermine the confidence of clients and colleagues (rightly or wrongly). The people I work with every day know about my diabetes. For others, I’m happy to explain if asked or if I need a few extra minutes to take care of a low blood sugar, but otherwise I usually don’t feel the need to offer an explanation. I also find that most lawyers and clients I work with have at least one device going off pretty regularly, so the fact that mine happen to include a pump and CGM doesn’t raise too many eyebrows!

    04/13/16; 1:29 pm
    • You mention ‘potential weakness’ and I feel this is what I worry about in the legal/corporate world. Given people use the ability to push themselves to extremes as a badge of honour (surviving on 4 hours sleep, running marathons, etc) it seems any perceived weakness is best hidden. I think you are right that it is a balance of disclosing it when necessary but not advertising it unless required. Thanks for your comments RC!

      04/14/16; 3:20 am
  2. Jennifer Kenny #

    Thank you for sharing your experiences! I can relate and it helps knowing I’m not alone. I once had to have facilitate a meeting in my place because I was at 40 BG right when it was about to start. I was a little too relaxed with my long time work group because when I pulled out my needle during a lunch meeting a co-worker screamed. Needless to say I have been painfully self-conscious since. At my current job, when a coworker realized that the little bag I bring to every meeting and on every walk has my diabetes supplies she said, “oh I just thought you brought tampons everywhere.” What a glamorous life we lead!

    04/13/16; 7:36 pm
    • I’m picturing your colleague screaming, priceless! I did something similar when on MDI and a colleague’s very pale face suggested I should warn before hand. And tampons? Because every girl always has to carry them just in case! I’m glad you can relate, and i certainly like knowing I’m not alone too Jennifer 🙂

      04/14/16; 3:23 am
    • And we are glamourous… we get to carry little beauty cases everywhere – my current one is from my favourite handbag brand and in rose gold and gold glitter!

      04/14/16; 4:23 pm
  3. Ashely McG #

    I am a nurse and being hypo at work scares the crap out of me, partly because I am stubborn and completely get this “I can make it, diabetes will not rule me” attitude that ends up leaving me to feel brain dead and or panicky all while being in charge of another person’s care. I have been pretty transparent with my coworkers and my immediate supervisor regarding T1D and some of the effects. I feel that I have to be because I work in an high risk area and don’t want to be misconstrued for lazy, insubordinate, unintelligent, or God forbid a drunkard! It makes me so frustrated that I really try to eat a healthy diet and have been trying to increase exercise yet when I do my blood sugars start dropping. I wish I had an answer for handling the stress of it all! If you find out let me know 🙂

    04/13/16; 11:13 pm
    • I find exercise is one of the most fraught areas (along with food obviously) – damned if we do and damned if we don’t! But I love when I see the positive effects on my sugar levels (just not when it makes me late to work like in my post above)! You sound as though you take it very seriously at work, but it must also be a lot of vigilance on your part. Virtual high five to you! Thanks for sharing Ashley

      04/14/16; 4:07 pm
  4. Alyssa #

    I have dealt with my diabetes at work or at school in varying ways. When I was younger (read: a teenager), I rarely told anyone about it and did my best to actively hide it. That meant that, as a camp counselor, I would sometimes sneak away from my bunk (very not allowed) to steal some apple juice from the kitchen. As I got older, I became much, much more open about it to everyone, including my teachers. One of my college professors even told me that he has diabetes, too!

    Because I was pre-med, I shadowed doctors during the summer before my senior year of college. The director of the program knew there was something there, and my shadowing partner knew an awful lot, but in general I kept it hidden from the other doctors.

    Now, as a medical student, I have tested in class (I sit in the second row and no one ever sits in front of me). I’m sure my lecturers have noticed, and I’ve mentioned it to them when I was trying to illustrate a point, but the same way I hide my other medical conditions, I try not to advertise it. If there’s ever a problem I don’t hesitate to tell them I’m low and need a minute, but I don’t usually come right out and tell a teacher/authority figure that I’m a diabetic if I don’t have to. I think that because I’m in the medical field there’s a lot of stigma, and I also just don’t want to have to explain it. I’m not a straight-up T1 or T2, and my diagnosis/management is often hard to explain. I prefer not to have to open up that can of worms if I don’t have to.

    I recently tested during a meeting with a teacher–twice. The first time I double tested because my meter said I was low (68 and then 72), but I decided to let it ride a little because I really didn’t want to have to leave and come back. The second time I tested I made a face at my meter, and my teacher finally noticed what I was doing. One nice thing about an anatomy teacher is they don’t get disturbed watching you prick your finger! I wasn’t embarrassed to explain it to her, and I did my best to answer her questions, but it wasn’t the most comfortable conversation I’ve ever had with her, either.

    In general I’m not a private person, and I’ll answer any question anyone has about my health problems, except where it concerns my professional development. I have this idea in my head that they see health problems as weakness, and that they will all wonder whether I can get through residency intact. Possibly because of that, I became very quiet about my health problems once I started medical school.

    04/14/16; 12:35 am
  5. Anne #

    I was diagnosed at 27. Sharing that I have diabetes with my direct supervisor has always been a priority. Sharing it with everyone else, I treat that on a case by case basis. I once had a low on the floor and no sugar to be found, except the team of paramedics leaving a previous call. Now, with myself and my coworker both having Type 1, we keep insulin in the fridge, make sure the other takes a minute to check their blood sugar on busy days, and completely understand when a CGM won’t cooperate or one of us needs a site change.

    04/14/16; 9:56 am
    • Anne, that’s great you have a diabetic buddy at work 🙂 Yay to having insulin in the fridge and someone to vent to about site changes!! I’m lucky that in my new job I’m so close to home I don’t need to be quite so vigilant about having a supply stash at least so that has relieved one worry at least.

      04/14/16; 4:10 pm
  6. Love this. Thanks so much for sharing your POV, Susannah!

    I’ve always had a big worry about diabetes relating to my career and work. As a teen, I was worried that I’d never be able to be a “big time” metro newspaper journalist thanks to my D. I had a couple jobs as a young adult when I wasn’t managing diabetes well (at all), and ended up passing out at work… I didn’t stay there long.

    Once I got into the newspaper world, I had editors who were mostly understanding. That helped me do the demanding always-on-call beats, and the breaking news coverage to go out on a scene to cover an accident, shooting, tragedy. Nothing worse than having to talk with grieving parents who just lost their kid in a fire, and you’re going Low into the 50s and can barely focus… But it all went smoothly for the most part.

    Worked as a legal reporter for several years and that was intense, trying to keep pace with the attorneys and manage without missing a step. I did appreciate the levity, even one state supreme court justice saw me doing a BG test and asked questions, giving me a chance to educate. And then there was the traffic court bailiff who tried to kick me out of the courtroom because of my beeping pump that he believed was a pager. Yeah, good times.

    Didn’t hide my diabetes, but certainly didn’t wear it on my sleeve like I’ve done as time has gone on. Don’t actually have any memories of site changes in my first couple newspaper jobs, but in the past decade they stand out more — probably because it was less intimidating and I was more open to sharing. But still, there was always that background notion of not taking it too far, so I wasn’t judged or always being seen as that guy talking diabetes at work.

    Best memory ever: being on a deadline and having non-stop calls with attorneys and judges, and looking down at one point to see a blood strip floating in my coffee cup! So glad I happened to glance before taking a drink… 😉

    04/16/16; 1:14 am

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