Every two minutes, someone in the UK is diagnosed with diabetes. Can employers do anything to help lower the risk in the future? How should they support employees who already have diabetes? This blog aims to answer.
In recognition of World Diabetes Day 2019 on Thursday 14 November, we're looking at diabetes in the workplace.
The cost of diabetes
Diabetes costs the NHS £25,000 every minute. This cost that is expected to rise as increasing numbers of people are diagnosed with the condition. In fact, one in 10 people globally are expected to have diabetes by 2040.
While type 1 diabetes is a mainly inherited autoimmune condition, type 2 diabetes usually develops later in life. It is typically associated with inactivity and obesity.
Currently, nearly two in every three people in the UK are either overweight or obese. This puts them at greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
The good thing is that the risk of type 2 diabetes can be lowered by making lifestyle changes. Many of our worst habits are formed at work, such as sitting all day and snacking on high sugar snacks. Of course employers can't force staff to eat healthily and exercise, but they can make it much easier to do so.
What is the impact of diabetes on businesses?
A 2015 study by the University of East Anglia found that diabetes reduces people's chance of employment and higher wages. The study authors wrote:
“Our results show a considerable impact of diabetes in terms of costs to society, health systems, individuals and employers."
Another study found that people with diabetes take more days off sick and therefore: 'employer efforts to reduce absenteeism should include consideration of anti-obesity interventions and diabetes prevention.'
Diabetes in the workplace can affect:
- Absenteeism levels - work days lost to related complications (including cardiovascular disease, nerve damage, kidney, eye and foot damage, skin conditions, hearing issues and more).
- Productivity levels - resulting disability and health fears related to diabetes can cause stress, anxiety and depression, which in turn can make it harder to concentrate or perform efficiently.
What can workplaces do about diabetes?
Employers can do a number of things to both reduce the risk of diabetes among employees and support those who have already been diagnosed.
Encourage more physical activity
A University of Edinburgh study results published in June this year claim office workers spend more time sitting down than pensioners.
While most office roles require us to be seated, there are ways for offices to create an active culture, such as:
- Sit-stand desks - staff should move from sitting to standing regularly throughout the day to raise the heart-rate and boost oxygen flow to the brain.
- Chairs that promote 'active sitting' - such as the stylish HAG H05, which has an in-built rocking mechanism to activate the core.
- An agile working initiative - Encourage staff to use different work environments throughout the day/week to promote movement. Simply moving to a different space (like a break-out area) can help rack up the steps. We should be aiming for 10,000 a day minimum.
- Allow regular breaks - staff who go for a two to three minute brisk walk every hour could add an extra 12-15 minutes of physical activity to their working day with barely any effort or disruption to their workflow. That's an hour and fifteen minutes every week - the equivalent of 240 calories burned (or a whole chocolate bar!).
Regardless of calorie burn, walking stimulates oxygen-flow, relieves tension in the body and boosts concentration. Sometimes we all need to retreat from the work environment to re-calibrate and clear our heads.
- Awareness posters - like this one we've created, which illustrates What happens to your body when you go for a walk at lunch.
Introduce flexible hours
Flexible hours can really help when you have to go in and out of hospital for complications related to diabetes. Trying to squeeze in appointments during lunch breaks can cause stress - especially when waiting times are longer than expected. With flexible hours you can simply make up the time at a later date, meaning there's no problem if appointments run over.
Encourage healthy eating
Both exercise and healthy eating are equally important when it comes to lowering the risk of diabetes. Employers can help in this respect by offering incentives such as subsidised healthy options in the canteen, or free fruit and healthy snacks in the office.
Educate on symptoms of diabetes
Send awareness emails, or print and post helpful posters like this one from diabetes.co.uk. If employees know the risks and symptoms of diabetes, they're one step closer to getting help before it's too late.
Diabetes doesn't just cause physical problems. Having a health condition can cause stress, anxiety and even depression. Introducing wellbeing programmes to the workplace can help support employees with mental health problems and help them cope better at work without needing to take time off.
Consider training staff to spot the signs of stress with our awareness e-learning course FeelRite.
Or, enlist the help of a wellbeing expert using our consulting service.
People diagnosed with diabetes may need extra support at work, especially if they suffer from related conditions such as hearing problems, eye damage or any other issues that make office work more challenging.
Our disability professionals can visit your premises to carry out a 'workplace needs assessment'. This will determine whether any reasonable adjustments are necessary. We can also recommend and supply any appropriate equipment.
Diabetes is a big problem in the UK, and it's only going to get bigger. If employers can make changes now, then they will be able to avoid bigger problems in the future - like an unhealthy, unproductive, absent workforce - and sufferers/those at risk will get the support they need.