Diabetes at work: “Open culture is vital”

It is estimated that 8% of the Belgian population has diabetes. According to experts, this number could increase to 10% by 2030. So, it’s highly likely that some of your employees also have diabetes. Katrien is one of them. She tells her story and provides employers with a couple of tips on how to support employees with diabetes.

It started with gestational diabetes

“I was 25 when I was pregnant of my first son, and I was suffering from gestational diabetes”, says Katrien. "The doctors told me that this temporary increase in my blood sugar level gave me a 50% higher chance of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.”

“A couple of years after my pregnancy I started losing weight all of a sudden. I was always thirsty and my mouth felt very dry. I got agitated very quickly as well. One day, I started feeling very bad at work and I ended up in the emergency room. That’s where I was diagnosed with diabetes.”

Diabetes type 1 vs diabetes type 2

After her pregnancy, Katrien was more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, but has type 1 diabetes. But what is the difference actually?

Type 2 diabetes is the disease that most people are familiar with”, Karin explains. “It is a hereditary disease that usually develops at an older age, often linked to an unhealthy diet and lifestyle. Gestational diabetes increases the chance that a woman will develop type 2 diabetes when she’s older.”

Type 1 diabetes is a genetic disorder that only develops when it is triggered, for instance by a severe viral infection or psychological distress. This usually happens at a young age. In my case, the disease developed rather late due to my pregnancy. Type 1 diabetes means that my body does not produce enough insulin.  Which is why people like me need to inject insulin for the rest of their lives.”

In Dutch we sometimes speak of “suikerziekte” (translator’s note: sugar disease), which often creates confusion between both types. This name refers to the cause of type 2 diabetes, but is used as a generic term for both types. “I never call it that”, says Katrien. “Medical professionals also refuse to use that term.” My disease has little to do with the condition that most people as granddad and grandma’s illness. I am just unlucky because my pancreas does not function as it should.”

Plenty of support from understanding colleagues

Katrien needed time to let the diagnosis sink in “The doctor gave me two weeks of sick leave to get used to my new situation. This was necessary, because at first I was very scared to get back to work. At the hospital I always had a red button at hand to press whenever I wasn’t feeling well, but there was no such safety net at work.”

“I need structure. My colleagues and employer takes this into account and they also don’t mind when I eat something during a meeting.”" Katrien


Luckily, Katrien gets plenty of support from her colleagues. “I have talked to them about my illness and what they need to do to help me should I lose consciousness. There is always a glucagon syringe in the fridge in case of an emergency.”

“My body needs regularity. My colleagues know that I have to eat at 12 o’clock sharp and they take this into account. Also, they don’t mind when I eat something during a meeting. I actually suffer more from my illness when I’m on holiday, because then I’m living less regular.”

How can the employer offer support?

Katrien’s employer is very understanding with regard to her situation. “I am given time to get myself together when I’m having a small dip. My employer also knows that I need a certain structure and takes this into account.”

“The most important aspect is that we have an open culture at work”, states Katrien. “This makes it a lot easier to talk about sensitive issues such as my illness.”

Practical tips for employers

1.     The flu can be very dangerous for people with diabetes. When infected, they run the risk of not being able to keep their food down, which puts their blood sugar levels at risk. Make sure to take preventive measures to prevent the flu from spreading

2.     Make sure there is always a fridge at work. In certain industries - think of construction, for instance - this is not self-evident. It is of vital importance for diabetes patients that a cold insulin syringe is always available.

3.     Write down the phone number of the GP treating your employee with diabetes. This way you can reach them immediately in case of an emergency. Also make sure that the number is available to colleagues.