Does the new intern always have an excuse not to go out for Friday night beers at the local hangout?
Does your office mate leave the office every time you come back to your desk with a snack?
Did you employee turn down a piece of birthday cake, even though it was his birthday?
If your teammate always declines lunch out with the team, choosing instead to eat a brown bag lunch from home, does that mean she can’t keep up with the work?
Before you label these employees as difficult, unsociable, or “not a team player,” look again. It could be food allergies.
Recent studies show that as many as 15 million Americans have food allergies. Another 2 million suffer from celiac disease, and many more suffer from food intolerances. As food allergies continue to rise, more young adults with food allergies are entering the workforce, and employers should take notice.
According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, the principals involved in the management of food allergies are very similar to the principals of food allergy management in schools. But while most schools have been dealing with the issue of food allergies for some time with parents actively advocating for their children, the workplace represents a new challenge. Young adults now need to advocate for themselves, and work environments can vary dramatically depending on the type of work being done.
A typical office environment may have a common area where employees snack, share refrigerators and microwaves, and even share food; a location where a little bit of spilled milk could be of concern to an employee with a milk allergy. That morning status meeting where doughnuts are being passed around the conference table could cause the start of the workday to be very stressful for an employee with allergies to wheat and eggs, or another who suffers from celiac disease.
Food allergy challenges in the workplace aren’t restricted to social events and celebrations. Plane travel, business lunches and dinners with clients, and conferences all require special planning for an employee with food allergies. Even a seemingly simple business-networking event, such as a baseball game where peanuts are thrown around the stadium, can be a challenge for an employee with food allergies.
Food Allergy Awareness Week (May 13-19, 2012) is a great time to assess your own workplace for food safety.
If you are the employee with food allergies:
- It’s up to you to make sure your boss and colleagues understand.
- Let your boss and co-workers know what you are allergic to, how to recognize an allergic reaction, and what they should do in a medical emergency. Make sure they know where you keep your medications, including epinephrine, if appropriate.
- Offer to help plan events that include food, or work with those on the planning committee to make sure they include foods that are safe for you.
- Be an advocate for your employee. Make an effort to reach out to employees with food allergies and understand their needs. Find out what foods need to be avoided.
- If food will be served in the workplace, engage the employee to help identify what foods are safe for them, and how they need to be handled.
- Accommodate food allergies the same as you would accommodate any other disability. Accommodations may include banning certain foods (such as nuts) from the office, or allowing the employee a dedicated refrigerator or microwave in their own workspace. In extreme cases it may be necessary to assign an employee their own office, rather than a desk in a shared space.
- Work with the employee to develop an action plan for emergencies.