Tag Archives: Coworkers

Open Sesame: Why I Decided to Tell my Employer About my Food Allergy

It started with a bagel; a sesame bagel someone around me was eating at a brunch. I’ve always had an intolerance to sesame seeds, nothing to fret about as it had remained an intolerance my entire allergy life so I never worried too much about it, considering I had bigger, more serious allergies. I wasn’t afraid or concerned around them as long as I wasn’t ingesting them. That was until a bagel at a brunch spot in Ottawa ruined that idea. A little back-story: A year ago I was living in Kingston, Ontario during the week and Ottawa, Ontario on weekends. My Sundays usually consisted of brunch then hitting the 401 for a two-hour drive. I travelled back and forth so often I spent a lot of time alone in my car with my thoughts and a good audiobook. On this one specific drive in late May, I started to feel sick and uncomfortable, but I passed off the feeling as tiredness and anxiety about driving back to Kingston. I figured my eyes were red from over focusing and the hives were caused by stress. I pushed aside any seed of thought about a reaction… but then it happened again.  It was a little more serious; my breathing was heavy and my hives were unmistakable. Those little seeds of doubt started to bloom into full-blown panic. Fast forward a few weeks later my allergist confirmed that my intolerance had upgraded to a full-blown allergy.

Following this diagnosis, I really needed to take stock of the one place where I was around food the most: my workplace. I was suddenly very aware of my work surroundings and where my new allergen may lurk; the old toaster in our office with crumbs in the bottom, knifes in the drawer were questionable as well as specs on the communal tables. The lunchroom suddenly became an area of anxiety and insecurity.

When I first mentioned my new allergy to my co-workers, I received a bit of a negative response about this “weird” allergy. This made me hesitant to talk to them about creating a safe space for me to eat in. I then internalized my allergies, trying to brush them off as not serious or a big deal even though they were causing my anxiety to go through the roof. I felt like I was back in grade school, surrounded by kids who didn’t understand my allergies or care because they wanted to be able to eat whatever they want. I began to eat at my desk or left completely to eat outside the office.  I knew something had to be done.

I started with a frank and honest discussion with my bosses about the severity of my new allergy. I expressed my worries, concerns and fears about the uncertainty surrounding the situation. I got an allergy alert plan outlining: Identifying a reaction, steps to take, where my auto-injector is, and what my allergens are. I put it up in a central spot to alert others to the seriousness of my food allergies. These actions may seem easy but it proved difficult for me personally; I hate talking about myself, making inconveniences for anyone or putting a spotlight on me at all. It makes me feel uncomfortable and awkward but those of us who have food allergies need to push those stage-fright feelings aside and make sure we’re heard.

It may be difficult to tell someone in an authority position about your food allergies. Even worse, it’s always challenging to explain allergies to someone who doesn’t get it or hasn’t been around it before. It’s easy to close off, shrink back and avoid the situation, or lash out and get angry. Both of which put you in a dangerous position, leaving everyone unsatisfied. Don’t let ignorance or misjudgment deter you from keeping yourself safe or speaking up. Telling your employer about your food allergies can keep you safe and create a friendly and informed workplace. Having a plan and being prepared for anything is the best possible way to tackle any situation. Most problems start with one tiny seed, and if we ignore them they can grow into a full-blown complication. We can’t ignore our intuition, or push aside out feelings, we have to be strategic and confident and find new and creative solutions whether it be allergy related, work related, or both.

-Arianne K.

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Explaining My Food Allergies Series: To a Co-worker

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Having open lines of communication with co-workers about your food allergy is important

I experienced my first anaphylactic reaction when I was an infant. By the time I entered the workforce I had more than two decades of experience taking care of my own safety. I was an expert, an anaphylaxis ninja, masterfully controlling my environment to ensure my safety.

This idea was shattered into tiny pieces one day when the office prankster saw me hard at work and used the back of my head as target practice. His projectile of choice was a handful of peanuts; the allergen I had reacted to.

In his defence he didn’t know his prank was dangerous. But for me this situation was a wake-up call; I was confronted with the fact that my track record hadn’t made me an expert, it made me complacent. I thought that it would have been awkward to inform my coworkers about my risk of anaphylaxis, but now I knew it was far more awkward to do so while picking a peanut out of my hair.

I realized that I needed to be proactive and explain anaphylaxis to my coworkers. Here are a few of my strategies for sharing food allergy information with coworkers:

  1. Go all the way to the top. If your company has a good Human Resources department go there, otherwise go to the highest manager you have access to. In my case, I went straight to the company president. I shared that I am at-risk for anaphylactic reactions and I educated him on what that meant. In all honesty I felt embarrassed, but the response to this was amazing. By the end of the day all the peanuts had been removed from the building and the cleaning staff were given special instructions to ensure every surface was cleaned. Most important of all was that now the management team knew what to do if anything happened.
  2. Next, go close to home. My company had 120 employees in two locations. I couldn’t tell everyone at once so I started within my department. This created a zone of safety with the cubicles nearest my own receiving the first education. Since these coworkers were actually eating food near my desk, they were critical to my safety. On top of this, they ended up being great advocates and helped me spread the word throughout the company.
  3. Be open to curiosity. Whenever someone had a question I went out of my way to educate them. I adopted the attitude that there is no such thing as a stupid question. Things that I took for granted were unknown to my coworkers so answering questions was a great way to make sure that the people around me were as anaphylaxis conscious as possible. For example, I got questions about smelling peanuts, symptoms I experienced in the past, how fast a reaction is, what they could do if I had a reaction and many others. These were great opportunities to educate people.
  4. Be direct and clear. It’s important to remember that anaphylaxis is serious business. I didn’t dwell on the darker side of food allergies but I did address them head on. After I explained what a reaction might look like I was honest, people have died from this, not often but it has happened. By approaching the subject directly I was able to get my message across and avoid other situations like the prankster episode. It turns out that my coworkers appreciated this method as it helped them understand the situation clearly.
  5. Teach people how to react to an allergic reaction. I always carry an auto-injector but during a previous reaction I learned that it can be hard to operate under pressure. When my hands were shaking I had my brother administer the injection for me. With that experience in mind I taught my coworkers how to use my auto-injector. I managed to get one of the trainers that has the needle removed and we practiced several times. Then we talked about the other steps such as calling an ambulance. Overall, it helped empower the people around me to feel like they could help if something went wrong.
  6. Continue to be proactive. My work was never over. This went for both my real work and my food allergy-awareness work. Food Allergies are a very important part of my life but just a fleeting thought for most people. Some people I had been working with for years would still forget about my food allergy from time to time. It’s your responsibility to stay safe so be proactive and continuously educate.

As people who are at-risk for anaphylactic reactions, we get used to talking to our friends, restaurant staff, and our families. But in many cases you spend more time with your coworkers than anyone else. It’s important to take matters into your own hands and talk to your coworkers about the risks associated with severe allergic reactions.

What about you? What strategies do you use to talk to your coworkers?

– Jason B.

Allergies and Outings with Colleagues

Jumping groupCarving-out a niche in the working world is all about building relationships with your colleagues. Having had brief experience in a corporate setting, I can attest to this. A major problem that I encounter is that most of these networking and social opportunities happen over lunch or dinner. This often puts me in a bind. I want to participate in these events, but how can I do so safely?

First of all, you should always plan ahead. A few weeks ago, I wrote an entry regarding buffets and safe dining–this was my first rule. If a group of colleagues arrange to have a dinner after work, use your lunch break to call the establishment in advance. Ask to speak to the general manager and ask whether or not they can guarantee an allergen-free environment. Ask about the nature of the cuisine they prepare and whether or not any of their products contain your specific allergen. Reiterate that you have a life-threatening allergy that is very serious and that the allergy can be triggered by cross-contamination.

Secondly, talk to the restaurant staff in person. If the phone conversation went well, and you feel safe enough to eat at the restaurant, speak to the restaurant staff upon your arrival. Ask to speak to the general manager again, to follow-up on your inquiries, and try to speak to the chef who will be in charge of preparing your food. The chef is usually the best person to talk to since they are the ones actually in the kitchen who are aware of how food is handled. They can best assess if there are likely to be risks of cross-contamination.

Finally, choose simple foods to eat. If you feel safe after speaking to both the chef and the manager, scan the menu. Avoid foods that are layered in seasonings, sauces or anything overly-fancy. The simpler the food choice, the safer you are. I usually request a grilled piece of steak (with salt and pepper seasoning) and a baked potato. If you have nut allergies, avoiding salads and desserts, as the risk of cross-contamination in those foods are very high, is usually a good practice.

If you follow these steps, this should alleviate a lot of the worry associated with eating- out when you have allergies. It will also allow you to focus on making a good impression among your peers since you won’t be as concerned about the safety of your food. I hope you will find these tips helpful.

Saverio M.  

Securing Allergy-Safe Lunchrooms at Work: The How-to Guide

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So how exactly do you get an allergy-safe lunchroom at work? The bad news is there aren’t really any resources out there that give you a step-by-step guide to securing one. Now, that wasn’t meant to be a lead up to me saying here’s my step-by-step guide. I, however, have successfully made multiple lunchrooms peanut/tree nut free, and generally allergy-safe, at different jobs over the years. From that experience, I will share tips and give some advice that you can apply to your job-site and hopefully make your lunchroom more allergy-friendly.

First thing to do is ask. If you never ask, you will never make any progress; you will begin and end with no results. This step may seem too simple; but, sometimes just asking really is the most effective strategy. When you ask for an allergy-safe lunchroom at work, be prepared. Questions about the severity of your allergy will arise. Your boss is probably just asking these questions to better understand your situation. Be sure to express all of your concerns and clearly explain the importance of feeling safe around food at work. Suggest helpful solutions, whether this is a peanut/nut-free lunchroom, or specific communal cooking ware designated for allergen-free cooking. It really depends upon your comfort level.

Secondly, educate your co-workers. Many people have grown up oblivious to the world of food allergies. It is this type of person who may, at first, be resistant to having an allergy-friendly lunchroom at work. The best approach is to educate! Teach everyone about the signs, symptoms, and severity of food allergies in general before narrowing in on your specific situation. It might be helpful to bring this up at a staff meeting where everyone is present in the room to hear your concerns. If this sounds intimidating, ask your boss whether they can address it at an upcoming staff meeting. You can also open the discussion up to co-workers and ask if anyone else has a food allergy or knows someone with a food allergy. Chances are someone will; this could help give you support in the pursuit of an allergy-safe lunchroom.

Thirdly, stay positive! Positivity is contagious (in my opinion). If you hit a speed bump in the road, you don’t turn around and say “I give up.” You slow down and keep driving. The same idea applies to this process. Stay positive, do what you can, and keep pushing for that lunchroom!

Lastly, you can always contact the company’s Human Resources department and explain your concerns. The members of this department are trained to help bring staff concerns forward and work on a feasible solution. It may require a little back-and-forth communication; but something important like this is worth putting in a little extra effort.

These tips may not entirely secure an allergy-safe lunchroom; but, if you’ve done everything in your power, then at least you can say you tried! I’d be willing to bet that a reasonable solution will be found if you keep an open mind and never give up on what you want. Have you had successes or challenges putting an allergy-friendly lunchroom into place in your workplace? Comment below!

 

Dylan

 

The Early Bird Gets the Worm

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When it comes to bringing up allergies in the workplace, I think a lot of us get nervous, anxious, or even just simply forget because of all the new information we are trying to learn at a new job. From my personal experience, the sooner I let my co-workers know about my severe peanut and tree nut allergies, the safer I feel at work. A few different strategies have worked for me in the past. I will share them with you here.

1)      I had the unique opportunity during an interview to mention my allergies. The question had something to do with describing a time when I had to deal with a high pressure situation and what I did. I decided to step outside the box and share two experiences. One was a workplace experience and the other was an allergy experience. I explained how my brother was having an anaphylactic reaction and, being allergic to nuts myself, I knew how to use the auto-injector and the steps that needed to be taken to help my brother. This turned out to be a simple way of opening up a conversation about allergies with a company that I would end up working for. Sometimes explaining your allergies before you even get the job can be useful and insightful for both parties. Even if you do not get the job, at least you can walk away knowing that you advocated for others with allergies who may work for that company in the future!

2)      Another strategy that I have used to tell my co-workers about my allergies is, essentially, the same calm, cool strategy I use when meeting new people. I mention my allergies and their severity casually, such as before a team meeting where donuts are provided: “No thank you. I’m severely allergic to peanuts and tree nuts.” This is almost always followed up with questions about what I can eat, where I keep my auto-injector, how to use it, and the list goes on. This is a simple, yet quite effective strategy.

3)      I have never done this; but I have heard of people emailing their boss to explain their allergies. From the abundance of emails everyone seems to go through in a day, I’m not sure this is the best strategy; but it has worked for some and maybe it will work for you! Just be sure to keep the email optimistic and informative in case your boss has never had any experiences with allergies before.

4)      A final method I have used is very blunt. I went straight to my new boss (the owner of the company) and explained my allergies to her. After my initial explanation, I asked if she had any questions and we entered into an informative dialogue back and forth for nearly twenty minutes. When we concluded, she took it upon herself to endorse a “peanut/nut free” unwritten policy where no peanut or tree nut containing food was allowed to be eaten in the office. I never asked for this exceptionally kind gesture; but my boss understood the severity of the allergy and would not take any risks. Based on my experiences, I find this strategy to be the most effective.

It may seem scary and nerve-wracking to put yourself in a place of vulnerability by explaining your allergy to co-workers in the workplace. Yet your safety is paramount. Take a deep breath and spread the word! You may be surprised how well your workplace takes your allergy information.

 

Dylan