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Online Exclusive: Chronic Disease in the Office: How to Create a Supportive Workplace

Oct. 4, 2013
As a society, it benefits us all to pay attention to the growing numbers of employees with chronic illnesses. The nature of these diseases – such as lupus, anxiety disorder, many types of cancers or early-stage MS – has a broad impact that affects all of us in the workplace.

Around the conference table at one of the world’s most iconic companies sits the CEO, senior executives and high-level partners. The meeting has high stakes, and is long, complex, intense and requires great focus from the participants.

While most of the individuals in the room rest their mobile devices on top of their notebooks or journals, Mark adds an extra item. His blood glucose meter sits inside a black pouch on top of the table. During the 2-hour meeting, Mark will check his blood sugar under the table. Based on the result, he will do nothing, raise his blood sugar or lower it. He will check himself six to 10 times a day at work depending on his level of demand and how he’s feeling.

This is relatively recent for Mark, a senior VP at one of the world’s largest public multinationals. He was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes four years ago. Mark’s approach to his disease is agnostic.

“I don’t go out of my way to hide it or promote it,” he says. He does recognize that managing any chronic illness in the workplace, and for your career, can be complex. “You don’t want to be treated any differently as a result of your condition. There is a tremendous amount of ignorance. Many people just don’t understand that these issues are unrelated to your lifestyle or diet.”

At the same time, it can be important that people around you know how to recognize symptoms, like low blood sugar, to avoid accidents or trips to the emergency room.

As a society, it benefits us all to pay attention to the growing numbers of employees with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, lupus, anxiety disorder and others. As individuals, coworkers and leaders, we need to publicize and manage expectations about these chronic diseases to allow people to thrive in the workplace.

Whether you are a manager of, coworker of or the individual with a chronic illness, the following tips will help your office support those with chronic disease in the workplace.

As a Leader

Encourage individual responsibility: While it’s great to have a community of support, the ultimate responsibility of managing a chronic disease falls on the individual that has the condition. As Mark says, “those with type 1 and many kinds of chronic disease are their own doctor 99 percent of the time.”

It’s imperative that leaders encourage individual responsibility and support all individuals to manage themselves as independently as possible.

Be a role model: By emphasizing that your overall health fuels performance, you can lead by example. Whether it’s aligning what you say with how you behave (“walking the talk”) is important to you, or speaking openly about how people can regularly refuel themselves, you have a large influence, by virtue of your role in the company. Your direct reports will follow your lead.

Be a mentor; give back: You may be amazed at how many employees in your office have a chronic disease. If you are a manager or leader with type 1 diabetes, you have a wonderful opportunity to show others that anything can be accomplished with type 1 diabetes.

Leaders also have the ability to give back by providing corporate support for charitable events related to chronic illness. There are leaders in high places with chronic diseases or who have family members living with chronic diseases and they the family that have provided financial and time support from raising awareness to investing in treatments and a cure. What can you do?

As a Co-Worker

Provide emotional support: Emotions influence our performance. You can be a sounding board for the emotional highs and lows of those around you.

When an up-and-coming executive who had it all – a booming career, a young family, a world class athlete and the respect of his peers was diagnosed with a terminal disease – it serves as a reminder to Mark to keep perspective on his condition. While type 1 diabetes is certainly challenging, he can live a normal life if he controls it.

Be an active learner: The more you can learn about a chronic disease or what your colleagues have to contend with, the more they will appreciate your willingness to be there for them in an authentic way.

As an Individual with a Chronic Disease

Be adaptable and flexible: Mark left his meter and insulin in his office for a short meeting. The meeting had a lunch planned and Mark found himself without insulin in front of a food buffet. He made smart choices, ate mostly carb free and immediately went back to his office to check his blood sugar and administer insulin.

Demonstrate agility and resilience: Due to the unpredictability and inexactitude of chronic illness challenges, you are required to always have a back-up plan. Know your disease and what you need to have available to manage it.

Focus on performance: The best way to prove that your condition is not a limiting factor is to focus on excellent work. As Mark points out, “If you do a great job, then a chronic disease is secondary.” If you do a great job, then any chronic condition you’re living with becomes a footnote.

By being more proactive in the workplace to increase awareness for the increasing numbers of chronic illness at work, and enhancing your own ability to control and manage your disease, we have an opportunity to create workplaces that understand, support and enable all of those with chronic conditions to shine at work, realize their ambition and perform consistently. 

About the Author: Andrew Deutscher is a speaker for The Energy Project and author of typecast – Amazing People Overcoming the Chronic Disease of type 1 Diabetes, to be released November 2013. As the parent of a type 1 child, he is a passionate advocate for type 1 diabetes, serving on multiple committees for JDRF Georgia. His experience speaking on the topic of sustainable high performance to major corporations worldwide allows him to frame diabetes care in an empowering way. For more information, contact Deutscher at 646-334-4381 or [email protected].

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