Diabetes is the biggest threat to the workforce, so we are told, with the number of people diagnosed more than doubling from 1.4 million in 1996 to 2.9 million in 2013, and an expected rise to five million by 2025. With an increasing number of our employees suffering from diabetes, employers are being asked to consider how they can offer support.
The symptoms are hard to detect accurately as many are shared with other conditions. An employee trying to control their blood sugar levels is likely to need to eat more often or suffer from dizziness, struggle to concentrate, be prone to sweating, drowsiness and possibly slightly slurred speech and may faint. As a manager, unless you were familiar with the condition, you may well not pick up on those symptoms as being diabetes specific, and if the employee is field-based, you are even less likely to notice any symptoms.
In terms of absence from work, and lost productivity, the increase in the number of sufferers could have hefty financial implications for employers. And for sure we will have a problem if their condition causes an accident, so as fleet managers what can we do about it, and other illnesses and conditions too?
Our fleet policy will refer to the necessity for disclosure of medical conditions, and give advice on safer driving – suggesting drivers avoid delaying or missing meals and snacks, taking breaks on long journeys, keeping any required medical treatments available in the car, and avoiding alcohol before driving. But all of that is policy and whilst we can insist a driver confirms they have read policy, actually ensuring they do, and abiding by the contents, is nigh on impossible. Maybe we need more practical solutions.
The Equality Act 2010 places an obligation on employers to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace to enable staff with disabilities to continue to work, and to prevent them from being placed at a substantial disadvantage, and its definitions can include people with diabetes. When deciding whether an adjustment is reasonable, an employer may take into account its likely effectiveness and practicality, versus the costs involved.
Reasonable adjustments may include allowing an affected employee time off to attend diabetes-related educational courses, which teach them to manage their condition better. Or it may be altering their working hours so that, for example, an employee who experiences difficulties managing their condition in the morning can start later in the day. But are there other things we can do, given the likely financial impact on our companies?
Specsavers recently launched a specific driver eyecare voucher for employers. Aside from ensuring our drivers are well within the legal requirements necessary to drive, eye tests can reveal the presence or likelihood of diabetes, as well as high blood pressure. If we made tests compulsory, we might discover potential problems earlier, and the cost of paying for testing would be relatively small.
We could have a wellbeing intranet site, giving staff access to online tools such as a health risk assessment, which they could use to detect the early warning signs of disorders. Here we can also raise employees’ self-awareness around the prevention and management of diabetes through exercise and a healthy diet. Other practical solutions might include discounted gym memberships, or workplace sports clubs encouraging employees to take adequate exercise.
These are opportunities in which field-based staff can still participate. Given a frequent pre-disposition for field workers to feel neglected and somewhat out on a limb, we may have a hard task ahead. And yet these revenue earners are the very people we need to look after and retain.
Each idea has implementation costs attached, and a business case needs to be made balancing the outlay against the cost of getting employees on long-term sick leave back to work, plus the cost of lost productivity, and additional temporary resources.
Whilst the employer has that over-quoted “duty of care” to perform, and whatever practical measures we pay to put in place to aid employee wellbeing, surely the onus must still be on the individual to remain responsible for their own welfare, and to stop ignoring the consequences of living a poor lifestyle?