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Diabetes and work - the emerging risks

By Rosie Hewitt
Rehabilitation and Delegated Claims Manager

People with diabetes should be assessed on their individual ability to do a job and not be discriminated against simply because they have the condition. Nevertheless, some key areas of employment have restrictions on people with insulin-dependent diabetes. 

These include:

  • driving long goods vehicles or those carrying passengers, i.e. jobs where people need to have a Group 2 license
  • the armed forces
  • jobs in the aviation industry, such as airline pilots and, in some cases,  cabin crew and air traffic control personnel
  • working offshore, for example on oil rigs and ships

Diabetes – an Unseen Disability & The Equality Act 2010

The legislation for England, Wales and Scotland sets out the principles that employers should follow in their treatment of employees and job applicants with a disability. Although employees with diabetes may not consider themselves to have a disability, diabetic workers will often be protected by the provisions in the Act

Shift work – a new risk?

A new study undertaken by Huazhong University of Science and technology in Wuhan, China, looked at data from 12 international studies involving 226,500 people.

The study took  several factors into account, such as workers' shift schedules, their body mass index (a calculation of height and weight), family history of diabetes and their level of physical activity.

Although the findings weren't able to show a direct cause-and-effect relationship, the researchers found that any amount of shift work was linked to a 9 %  greater risk for developing diabetes. What’s more for men engaged in shift work, the risk jumped to 37%percent.

Why are men more at risk?

Although the reason why men are at greater risk than women isn't clear, the researchers believe that testosterone levels may play a role. Prior studies have pointed to an association between low testosterone levels and insulin resistance and diabetes.

Shift work and diet

It is thought that disruption to the body clock affects waistlines, hormones and sleep - which could all increase the risk of diabetes.

Research has shown that shift work is associated with weight gain and increased appetite, which are known risk factors for diabetes. Cholesterol levels and blood pressure may also be disturbed by working in shifts, which could contribute to increased diabetes risk.

Rotating shifts – the highest risk

The highest increased risk, though, was for people who work rotating shifts - regularly working different parts of the 24-hour cycle, rather than fixed hours. The increased risk for these workers has been reported to be 42%.

The nature of rotating shifts makes it hard for workers to maintain a regular sleep-wake cycle. This reduction in sleep or sleep quality may weaken insulin resistance..

However, not all variations of shift work were associated with an increased risk of diabetes

In our next blog we look at what employers can do to ensure diabetic workers are supported in the workplace