FARE’s latest newsletter highlighted a great resource they have for those with food allergies, a page called Managing Food Allergies at Work: http://www.foodallergy.org/managing-food-allergies-at/work.
This is a topic I’ve dealt with for years. I have celiac disease and multiple food allergies and the workplace can be like a minefield for the food allergic. Not only do you have to deal with others’ ignorance of your condition and even their hostility towards it, but you have to be cognizant of minute details to avoid getting sick. Some people can have allergic reactions to airborne food proteins, like when food is cooking, some have severe reactions to trace amounts of allergens, and some only have to touch the food for their immune system to go into overdrive.
Many people don’t understand that food allergies can be much more serious than they sound. “Allergy” can imply a little coughing, a little itching, and other symptoms that can merely be tolerated. In reality, an allergic reaction to food can kill some people without proper treatment and cause terrible pain and suffering for others. If someone tells you they have a food allergy, it’s not a joke, they’re not exaggerating; they need your help making sure they don’t poison themselves.
Unfortunately, many people with food allergies don’t realize that they have a legal right to request accommodations in the workplace. If your condition is life-limiting, then under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you have the right to ask for reasonable accommodations. This doesn’t mean that your employer gives you everything you want, but it does mean that they should work with you to help you stay well. That’s in their best interest anyway.
As FARE’s website points out, it’s prudent to give your supervisor or Human Resources Department a heads up that you have a medical condition. By law they shouldn’t be disclosing medical information to others without your consent, so it’s up to you how much you would like your coworkers to know. It’s usually a good idea for them to know your major allergens and what to do in an emergency. Some people have to carry an epinephrine auto-injector and you might want others to know where you keep those.
Don’t expect that everyone will be merciful about your medical condition, though. I know of some very sadistic behaviors in the workplace that have occurred after people have disclosed their food allergies, including one incident that could have been fatal for the victim. There are those who never left the fifth grade emotionally and may take it upon themselves to kid you about “overreacting” or jab you for having a personal fridge or toaster. Others might purposefully try to make you ill. Report them to your supervisor, HR, and/or the police as needed. They might need to be criminally charged with assault or worse.
Food-themed events at work (or anywhere) can be stressful for food allergic people to deal with. If you’re around people who accept that you’re unable to join in the meal, then you can focus on the merriment and have fun. If someone’s trying to cause you a guilt-trip for not trying the allergen-free cake they made for you in their (allergen-saturated) home kitchen, it can become a miserable party. It is not up to others to dictate what a food allergic person should eat, tell them that a little won’t hurt them, or chide them for not partaking. The food allergic person already knows what they can and can’t have.
One aspect of food allergies that can be difficult to talk to your coworkers about– and is really none of their business if you don’t want it to be– is how you react to certain foods. Not everyone with a food allergy goes into anaphylactic shock. The symptoms can take days to process as the allergen works its way through one’s digestive system. Many allergic people I know have severe bowel pain and either diarrhea, constipation, or a wicked combination of both. Others have skin rashes, get extremely fatigued, get sores in their mouths, and so on. Those with food allergies, especially celiacs, often suffer from other autoimmune diseases as well, so eating an allergen can trigger or heighten other painful problems.
It’s going to take time and a continual effort on the part of food allergy sufferers to get our schools, churches, workplaces, and other gathering spots to take our allergies seriously. Just like someone with a more visible disability, like a missing limb, we didn’t choose to have this condition. Because many in the medical profession simply don’t test patients for food allergies and medicate them instead, they can go years without knowing what’s wrong and develop an increasing number of immune system challenges in the meantime. Celiac disease, for example, is genetic, with an estimated one in 33 Americans carrying the gene and one in 99 Americans having it. When’s the last time you heard of routine testing for this?
Readers have heard me say it in other posts in the Diet and Health section– you need to know what kind of food you are putting in your car. Are you leaded, unleaded, or diesel? It floors me that with all the drugs we take for anxiety, depression, IBS, fibromyalgia, diabetes, and other ailments that doctors don’t do possibly the simplest thing they can– draw blood for an ELISA test (http://www.centerforfoodallergies.com/). Unless you have had a reliable test, how do you know that your anxiety, depression, IBS, etc. isn’t caused by the kind of food you’re eating? (And I don’t believe in elimination diets– most people don’t realize how many forms gluten takes, for example, and many have multiple allergies that can’t be determined that way.)
Know what kind of fuel to put in your car. Your body is the vehicle you get to drive during this life, so you shouldn’t expect it to work well if you’re pumping the wrong things into it. When you do know what kind of fuel you need, remember that your new diet is more about finding exciting new foods and substitutions far more than cutting things out. You will likely be eating healthier as well– less packaged, more fresh– and you’ll become a better cook and dinner host.
In the workplace and elsewhere, don’t let other people bully you for any reason, but especially not over your food allergies. Keep appropriate people in the loop and always remember that you have rights. Just because others can’t see the insides of your intestines when you feel like you’re digesting glass or haven’t witnessed you jab an Epi-Pen into your thigh doesn’t mean that you’re less deserving of reasonable accommodations than others. You’re not picky, entitled, a hypochondriac, or a freak, you’re someone with a medical condition just like the guy in Cubicle 5 who takes meds for his A-fib or the woman at the cashier’s desk who carries an inhaler.
In conclusion, your needs are legitimate, you have a right to ask for help if you need it, and life will generally get better the more you take control of your food allergies. Our society has gorged itself on common allergens like wheat, dairy, and peanuts for many years so it should be no surprise, especially from a genetic point of view, that not everyone’s built to ingest the same substances anymore. It’s okay to be one of the growing number of people who’ve found out that they need to adjust their dietary intake– and most of us can find a way to manage our allergies at work just like we do at home if we’ll stand up for ourselves and speak out.
Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in a world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. –David Beckham
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