Many people, such as doctors, nurses, bus drivers and firefighters have continued to work throughout the coronavirus pandemic. But millions of people have been furloughed, laid off or teleworking for months and now are being called back to the workplace or have already returned.
While you might be eager and excited to get back to work after being cooped up at home for a long time, you might also be anxious and concerned, especially if you have diabetes. Will you be safe? Will your risk of getting COVID-19 increase in the workplace? And what can you do to lower your risk?
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Your manager or supervisor has told you that it’s time to go back into the workplace. Understandably, you may have questions and concerns about your safety and the safety of others. Fortunately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have guidelines for employers on making sure that the workplace is as safe as possible for employees. Keep in mind, however, that these are suggestions, and regulations will vary from state to state.
Here are some questions to ask your supervisor about the steps your employer has in place to protect you and other workers. You might feel nervous about asking these questions but remember: your health and safety are a top priority, so you have every right to ask and get answers.
Your employer should ensure that workers can maintain at least a 6-foot distance from each other. Your office setup may need reconfiguring, or perhaps your team will work staggered shifts or even operate at lower capacity so that there aren’t too many people in the workplace at any one time. There may be the option to continue to work from home some of the time; make sure to get clarification about telecommuting, especially if you’ve already been working remotely. If you work in a retail setting, ask how the store is controlling the number of customers in the store and what the procedure is if a customer is not wearing a face covering.
In addition to social distancing, your workplace may be installing physical barriers such as Plexiglass or glass dividers to help limit the transmission of the coronavirus. Frequent disinfecting of surfaces (desks, phones, door handles, faucets, etc.) is a must. Ask how often cleaning will take place during your shift. It’s a good idea to ask how the number of people will be limited in restrooms and break rooms, too. You should try to avoid using other people’s equipment, tools, phones, keyboards and desks; if that’s not possible, ask that these be cleaned and disinfected before and after use.
Be sure to ask if personal protective equipment (PPE) will be provided. Your state may not require employers to provide PPE, so don’t assume it will be available to you. Again, ask your supervisor or human resources department. In the meantime, be prepared: always wear a face covering and bring hand sanitizer and disinfecting supplies with you to work, just in case these aren’t supplied. Of course, regular hand washing is a must, as well.
The more people that you interact with, the higher your risk of getting COVID-19, as some people may have the virus and not know it if they don’t have symptoms. Suggest that meetings be held virtually, whenever possible, to limit interactions. If they must be in person, ask if employees will be seated at least 6 feet apart from each other.
In order to protect the health of all of the employees, an employer may perform screenings for symptoms, such as temperature checks. An employer may also ask that employees get a COVID-19 test before returning to work.
The CDC’s website has helpful information for both employers/businesses and employees who are returning to work. Visit their “Businesses and Workplaces” page to learn more.
You may have particular concerns about returning to the workplace if you have diabetes. The CDC considers people with type 2 diabetes to be at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19. In addition to diabetes, though, there are other conditions that put you at risk, including:
· Chronic kidney disease
· COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
· Heart conditions, such as heart disease or heart failure
· Obesity, defined as a body-mass index of 30 or higher
It’s not uncommon for people with diabetes to have other chronic conditions, such as kidney disease or heart disease. In addition, the older you are, the higher your risk for severe illness from COVID-19. If you’re in your 50s, for example, you’re at a higher risk of COVID-19 illness than your coworkers in their 20s, 30s or 40s.
Another factor to consider is your glucose levels. High blood sugar (hyperglycemia) is linked with worse outcomes in people who have COVID-19. In a study published in the August issue of the journal Diabetes, the authors believe that the low-grade, inflammatory nature of diabetes and hyperglycemia lead to worse outcomes in those with the infection. These outcomes include kidney failure and acute respiratory distress syndrome requiring mechanical ventilation. Talk with your diabetes care team about your diabetes and other conditions that you may have so that you can better understand your risk.
If you are returning to the workplace, in addition to the tips mentioned above, here are other considerations to keep in mind:
· Be extra vigilant about practicing social distancing, wearing a face covering, and washing your hands frequently.
· Consider having an antibody test to find out if you were exposed to the coronavirus; a positive antibody test means that you’ve likely had COVID-19 and are at least somewhat protected from getting it again, giving you a reason to go back to the workplace. If the result is negative, you either have not been infected or you possibly have a COVID-19 infection. If you have symptoms of COVID-19, talk with your provider about getting a COVID-19 test.
· Do not go to work if you have symptoms of COVID-19, which include: a fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath, body aches, headache, sore throat, nausea or vomiting, or diarrhea.
· Talk with your supervisor about reasonable accommodations, which are changes or adjustments to a job or work environment. Examples of reasonable accommodations as they relate to diabetes include being allowed breaks to check your blood sugar, take medication or eat a snack; a private area to check your blood sugar or inject insulin; leave for treatment or training on managing diabetes; and the opportunity to work a modified work schedule or a standard shift versus a swing shift.
Dealing with the pandemic is stressful enough; trying to manage diabetes during a pandemic adds additional stress. Michelle Dart, CDCES, of Dart Health Coaching & Consulting adds, “Stress levels are high for many and they see the impact on blood glucose levels.” Financial concerns about choosing not to return to work, having to advocate for yourself, and dealing with criticism for taking steps to protect yourself only adds to stress, which, in turn, can cause blood glucose levels to rise.
You might feel stressed about other issues around the workplace, too:
· Asking for time off to go to medical and diabetes education appointments
· Increased costs of food
· Figuring out what to bring for lunch or dinner and a safe place to eat
· Wearing a mask for long periods of time
· Worries around getting sick at work
· Concerns around getting laid off from work
Some of these concerns can be dealt with by having a talk with your supervisor or human resources department. In terms of medical and diabetes education appointments, take advantage of telehealth appointment options whenever possible. “If people are interested,” says Dana Sindelar, RD, CDCES, “I’ll help them explore their work schedule to see if there are creative solutions, like a virtual appointment in the car before work, during lunch or right after work.” Don’t forget that a diabetes educator (also known as a certified diabetes care and education specialist) is a great resource to help problem-solve sticky work situations, as well as provide ideas for healthy, low-cost lunches and snacks that you can take to work. Here’s an idea to get you started: save money and time by making healthy Mason jar meals for the week ahead. Find some inspiration here.
Working with your diabetes care team can also help alleviate stress around your diabetes treatment plan. If your work hours will be changing, for example, talk with your provider about your medications and if they need changing or if when you take your medications needs to change, based on your schedule.
Finding ways to cope with stress is important for both your mental and physical health. Finding time to unwind can help. Eating healthfully, fitting in physical activity, getting enough sleep and doing activities that you enjoy will make it easier to deal with stressful situations – and help your blood sugars, too! Be sure to connect with others. Social distancing can leave you feeling isolated, anxious and depressed; connecting with others via phone calls, video chats and social media can help you feel less alone.
Returning to work during a pandemic can bring up a host of issues that you may not have ever needed to deal with before. It’s important to know your rights as both an employee and a person with diabetes, especially if you are unable to return to the workplace or decide not to return for health or other reasons. Here are a few resources that can be helpful for answering questions that you have:
American Diabetes Association: Rights for Workers with Diabetes during the Coronavirus Pandemic
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Fact Sheet – Diabetes and Reasonable Accommodations
U.S. Department of Labor: COVID-19 and the Family and Medical Leave Act Questions and Answers
Want to learn more about coronavirus and diabetes? Read “Coronavirus and Diabetes: What You Need to Know,” “Healthy Eating During Hard Times” and “Avoiding Coronavirus With Diabetes: Stock Up and Stay Home, CDC Says.”
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