Diabetes at Work


I always imagine that diabetics who work in offices have a relatively easy time dealing with low blood sugar. If they start to feel shaky or sweaty, they can get up, go to the bathroom, test, and then return to their seats–perhaps drinking some juice or munching on chocolate if they did in fact have a low blood sugar reading. The diabetic could be so inconspicuous that his or her coworkers might be completely unaware that the person sitting one cubicle over has a medical condition at all.

I work as a cashier in a large bookstore, and I can never be quite so casual or unobtrusive about managing my diabetes. I’m often the only person working at the register; if I slipped away for five minutes to test my blood sugar, I would come back to find a line of customers tapping their feet and calling out: “Where is everyone who works in this store?”

When I was first hired, I explained to my manager that I had diabetes and that I might sometimes need go downstairs to my locker and get my diabetes kit if I felt low. (I could have kept my kit at the register with me, but I knew it wouldn’t pleasant for the customers to see their cashier suddenly turn aside and jab herself with a needle.) My manager was completely understanding. “Whenever you need to test your blood sugar, just tell one of the supervisors and they’ll find someone to cover you while you go downstairs,” she assured me.

But this process is never as straightforward as it sounds. The supervisors roam the store helping customers, and are rarely close enough to the registers for me to ask permission to go downstairs in person. This means I have to page them through the headset, which relays my request not only to my supervisor, but also to all the other employees in the store. For this reason, I try to avoid mentioning diabetes outright. Instead, say something like: “Could I, uh, run downstairs for few minutes?”

My wording will then make me worry that the supervisor will think I only want a ten-minute break. I’m allowed one off-the-clock ten minute break per shift, and in normal circumstances I try to wait for this treat as long as possible. If I interrupt my routine to go downstairs to test my blood sugar only to find that I have a perfectly normal reading, I feel that I’ve cheated myself out of my break as well as bothered my supervisor for no reason. This will sometimes lead me to postpone asking to test my blood sugar even if I do feel low. This morning, for example, I suddenly noticed my hands shaking about an hour into my shift. Instead of asking for permission to go downstairs and test, I told myself that I was imagining things. When I finally did test, my blood sugar was 56. After wolfing down a clementine, I ran back upstairs, still jittery probably more than a little vague with the customers.

I know my difficulties with diabetes at work are small and often the product of my own over-analysis. But many people do have trouble reconciling their work with the day-to-day challenges of diabetes. I can imagine how hard it would be for a teacher with diabetes to suddenly have to leave a classroom of recalcitrant kids, or how hard it would be for a lawyer to walk out of a meeting with a client. What do other people do when their work is interrupted by diabetes?

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13 years ago

If it makes you feel any better, it’s not always easier in the office setting.  :]  I worked as an intern in a cubicle world and I would often find myself in formal meetings or ad hoc chats with, say, my hard-to-find boss that would go longer than anticipated and suddenly I’d be low and unarmed.  I don’t exactly take my meter to the copy machine.  I guess I could have carried tabs in my pockets (which you could maybe do if you’re feeling low? and treat, just in case?), but I never did.

Jennifer Jacobs
13 years ago

My biggest diabetes challenge, work-wise, was when I was teaching math at an all boys’ school. I usually keep my pump in my bra (if I’m wearing clothes with no pockets) and I had more than one occasion where I’d reach up to write something on the chalkboard and feel a tug as it fell out of my shirt. That took some quick maneuvering.

Michael Hoskins
13 years ago

Becca: I’m one of those “lucky” ones with a relatively easier time testing and treating lows, as I work in an office – a newsroom, but still not the retail “in the spotlight” setting at issue here. But I’ve done those jobs in the past, and have been a restaurant foodserver, and it is indeed tougher to find a brief moment in those instances. Usually kept a meter nearby just in case, and could muster a few seconds to grab a swig of juice or regular soda if really needed. Tough to keep out of sight from eating folks and customers… Read more »

Jim Huck
JIm Huck
13 years ago

You’re right that dealing with diabetes is easier when you work in an office, because you’re generally not “in the spotlight,” 8 hours per day.  Retail is tough because when you have a long line of customers, you can be so focused on getting them taken care of that you forget to take care of yourself.  When I worked retail, I went totally into shock to the point that I couldn’t figure out how to run a credit card transaction.  The customer thought I was on drugs.  I was in denial about diabetes at the time, so I would have… Read more »

13 years ago

I’m fortunate that I’ve only had a few interruptions.  My worst low ever was at work and it was that I was trying to get through a meeting that I really needed to have…I knew I was going low, but didn’t want to make people wait for me to go get something.  By the time I got something I was so low that it took forever for me to stop shaking and be able to work.  I also had a day where I was really high and it seemed to not be coming down…so I jogged around a conference room… Read more »

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