The new Scarlet Letter

As employers begin to make plans to bring their employers back, we’ve been reading about many of the new measures they plan to take to keep their workplace and employees safe. Just as employers implemented new security measures after 9/11, the same is being planned now. Workplaces are being redesigned to accommodate social distancing, employers are looking at apps which track and score employees on social distancing, buildings are installing systems which measure an employee’s body temperature and staggered shifts to lesson interaction.

Among the additional ideas being floated are a closer examination of the employee’s age and current health. As we all know employees with diabetes are at an increased risk of developing and therefore transmitting the coronavirus. One proposal we have seen places employees into groups based on their level of risk. Those with the least amount of risk would be brought back first, followed by those with higher degrees of risk which of course places employees with diabetes in the highest risk group.

Just as employees accepted the new measures implemented after 9/11 to ensure their safety many believe they will accept these new measures to protect their health and the health of their co-workers. Setting aside the many privacy issues and there are a boatload one has to wonder the impact this will have on employees with diabetes. Could diabetes become the new Scarlet letter?

Now some will argue that this will help patients as they will become more engaged with their diabetes management. On the flip side it is equally possible that these employees will attempt to hide the fact they have diabetes fearing they may lose their job or contact with co-workers because they have diabetes. Again setting aside the privacy concerns one has to wonder how employers will handle what will be a very sensitive issue.

Just by way of example let’s say employees are brought back based on risk levels, it’s pretty hard to hide the fact of who came back first and who last. Anyone in that last group carries the risk of being stigmatized by their co-workers. To believe this won’t happen is to ignore human nature.

Take a look at the latest hot button issue, facemasks. Although the benefits of wearing a facemask are up for debate many states and cities have made them mandatory. Like everything else in this country fault lines are developing regarding this issue. There are those who believe that everyone must wear a facemask no exceptions whatsoever. On the other side there are those who see this requirement as an unnecessary intrusion. They don’t want the government telling them what they can and cannot wear. That the choice should be theirs and theirs alone.

Just how violate is this issue earlier this week a security guard was killed over it. This is on top of the many using social media to shame people who do not comply with the rules be it wearing a facemask or social distancing. Here in Chicago the police department has spent considerable time breaking up house parties which violate the rule of having more than 10 people in one place.

To say that having diabetes might not become another hot button issue is to ignore these very real realities. Human nature being what it is we can envision an employee asking not to work with or be near another employee who has diabetes. This could, likely will create a nightmare for Human Resource directors. How do they balance and respect an employee’s privacy while at the same protect their employees from contracting the virus?

Ironically many of the tools used to manage diabetes can be hidden. CGM which is becoming the standard for glucose measurement can be easily hidden. Patients on oral therapies can take their meds before going to work and insulin users can excuse themselves to a private area to inject their insulin. Conventional insulin pump patients will find this more difficult given tubing while the OmniPod can be hidden.

However there is a flip side here as well as patients with diabetes already have enough to worry about and making them feel even more conscious of their diabetes will place a strain on their mental health. While it may seem crazy to those who do not have diabetes many patients with diabetes are very self-conscious about their condition. Diabetes may be a global epidemic, but a surprisingly large portion of patients keep their condition private some not even telling members of their own family.

Anyone who does not believe this to be true has never been at a diabetes event. Having attended several we can state firsthand that patients at these events feel liberated to be around their own. A place where no one gives them a dirty look for testing their glucose or injecting insulin. Many share horror stories of how they are treated in the “outside” world.

This is not just a privacy sensitivity issue it also impacts all the company’s in the diabetes market. They must cognizant of what is about to become the new workplace environment.

We understand the need to protect employees. Yet these needs must be balanced against those who through no fault of their own are at increased risk. This isn’t like the measures instituted after 9/11 which protected everyone regardless of age, race of health. The measures being considered today have the potential to create discrimination even though that is not their intention.

With all the progress we have made over the years the last thing we need is for diabetes to become the new Scarlet letter.