Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), food allergy awareness week is now well recognized within the food allergy community as a time to educate and spread the word about food allergies.
When my son was first diagnosed with food allergies I was working fulltime in a corporate environment. I was suddenly faced with juggling work, family, home, and becoming an expert in how to keep my child safe at the same time. I could no longer rely on school lunches and I had to re-think my thrown-together-at-the-last-minute dinners.
I have managed my son’s food allergies through the school years and into college. And now, as he is about to enter the workforce, I find myself worrying about a new set of issues. I’ve stopped worrying about ingredients and recipes – he is quite capable of looking out for himself. I worry now about the workplace, and how his food allergies will affect his ability to be successful.
In the spirit of awareness, I’d like to share five things every boss should know about food allergies:
1. Food allergy is a disability you can’t see. An employee with a physical disability is usually easy to spot, and most of us are willing to hold the door open for him. The employee with food allergies does not appear to have a disability, and that makes it too easy to dismiss.
2. There are more people with food allergies than ever before, and some of them will be your employees. More than 12 million Americans have food allergies. That’s one in 25, or four percent of the total population. Because food allergies are more prevalent in younger generations, as Gen Y enters the workforce, the number of employees with food allergies will increase.
3. Food allergies are not a choice. It’s not about preference or lifestyle.
When an employee is allergic to a food, contact (even accidental contact) with that food causes an autoimmune response. The body attacks itself in an effort to rid itself of the invading allergen. Reactions can vary, but the most severe are life threatening. No one chooses to have food allergies.
4. Food allergies can affect employee morale and productivity. Employees with food allergies may not be able to eat lunch in the cafeteria with their colleagues. They may need to brown-bag it instead of going out for Chinese food once a week. They may feel left out when the cake for the office birthday party is one they can’t eat. These employees will miss out on key informal discussions, causing them to feel isolated from the team.
5. Working parents are more likely to have a child with food allergies today than fifteen years ago. From 1997 to 2007, the prevalence of food allergies increased 18% in children less than 18 years of age. Three million children under age 18 have food allergies. Five percent of children under age five have food allergies. If you have a team of with twenty parents, chances are at least one has a child with food allergies. While all working parents worry about their children, food allergy moms and dads have the added stress of managing their child’s illness. Some will make career choices to stay closer to home, choose roles with less responsibility, or even drop out of the workforce entirely.
If you’re the boss, what can you do?
Ask. Make it your job to find out about your employees food allergies or restrictions. There’s no need for you to become an expert – you already have the expert on your team. If you’re planning a team outing, gathering, or celebration that involves food, ask the employee what will work for them and make the appropriate accommodations.
Make sure the employee’s office environment is safe. Depending on the specific food allergy and the severity, this could mean asking employees not to eat in their office, not to pass doughnuts around the conference room table, or not to leave dishes of peanut M&Ms on their desks. If you do use the conference room table to serve food, be sure to clean it thoroughly afterwards. Even a few crumbs left behind could cause a potentially life-threatening reaction.
Be supportive. Food-allergy moms and dads may need to make extra visits to school to arrange appropriate accommodations. They may require flexible work schedules or other accommodations. You may need to make an extra effort to include your food-allergic employees in key team discussions.
The bottom line is, employees with food allergies may need some accommodations to ensure a safe and effective working environment. Likewise, employees who are parents of food-allergic children may need extra support and access to resources to help them with the issue.