The Workplace and Food Allergies: My Major Learning Curve

Entering the workforce with food allergies has been an eye-opener. It's not remotely like school. I'm having to educate from scratch and speak up to avoid being the 'only one not eating'.

25 October 2022
By Hannah Lank

After many years of school, I have finally graduated (for the last time) and entered the workforce. From elementary grades on through college and law school, I developed expectations about food allergy awareness and accommodations. 

It didn’t take long to realize that these expectations didn’t apply in the work world. The workplace is a whole other environment, and it’s not necessarily as welcoming to those of us with food allergies. At work, when lunch is ordered or a surprise doughnut party occurs, I risk being left out. Or, I must swiftly advocate for my safety. 

Unlike school, which is generally made up of people of the same generation, colleagues in the workplace may straddle several generations. At my office, we range in age from 25 (me) to 70 years old. It’s a pretty significant age difference. Since starting to work, it has been eye-opening to learn that many older individuals may not have the same understanding of food allergies as those of us raised in “Generation Allergy” and our parents. We’re all well-versed in food allergy-aware school environments, birthday parties, and activities. Often, they are not.

Also, while school environments are generally designed to accommodate those of us who are part of Generation Allergy, workplace environments frequently aren’t as friendly. Many Generation Allergy folks will be the very first staff member at their workplace to have food allergies. The result is a major learning curve for those with food allergies and our work colleagues alike!

Appetizers to Allergy Education 

Food is an inherent part of the workplace environment. Lunch falls in the middle of the workday, and many business-related events are centered around food. For example, when going out for drinks with my colleagues after work, the group decided to order a variety of appetizers. I wasn’t the person ordering. But if I wanted to be able to enjoy the appetizers, I knew I had to speak up and inform the server of my food allergies. 

Naturally, my comments to the server were heard by the whole table, drawing attention to me, and inviting questions about my food allergies. Since I’ve had food allergies my whole life, I’m used to this. 

I took the questions as an opportunity to educate my new colleagues on my food allergies, which ultimately makes my workplace environment safer, too. I told them where I keep my auto-injector (important for them to know!). Then I briefly explained how to use it (for mine, it’s “blue to the sky, orange to the thigh”). 

Informing colleagues of your food allergies, the symptoms of a serious allergic reaction, and where you keep your auto-injector helps to keep you safe at work. Consider the huge amount of time most of us spend at work. If the colleagues don’t know, they can’t help you.

Keeping your workplace safe is the No. 1 priority, but it’s not the only work issue. I’m realizing that inclusion is another important matter. 

Employees with food allergies should also be able to participate fully in workplace events involving food. These events help to build the camaraderie necessary to make your workplace an enjoyable environment. As well, they are a place where important discussions may arise. You want to be there.

Workplace & Food Allergy Goals

Safety is the bare minimum; full participation should be the goal. To me, this means that workplace events involving food always have at least one food allergy-friendly option. It also means that colleagues don’t make insensitive or ignorant comments about your food allergies. When interacting with people who are less familiar with food allergies (generally, older colleagues), a greater level of food allergy education may be required than most of us from Generation Allergy are used to. 

Some examples of insensitive or ignorant comments might include: “Oops, guess you can’t eat any of this.” Or “make sure you don’t have any of this – we don’t want to kill you!” And sometimes, it’s much worse. While I’m used to getting these comments, they still annoy me! 

If you work at a place with a human resources department, see if you can get their assistance. Informing HR about your food allergies and explaining the importance of educating colleagues can be a great step to making your workplace safer and more comfortable. I’m a fan of being proactive. For example, you could provide HR with a list of safe foods or restaurants that you can eat at. That way, they can help to accommodate you at a next event. 

Many people just don’t know where to go for food allergy-friendly options, so they simply tell the person with food allergies that none of the food is safe for them to eat. This is inappropriate and unnecessary. Those of us with food allergies can help to reduce the chances of this disappointing situation by educating HR and workplace coordinators about allergy-friendly venues. Is this extra work for us? Yes, unfortunately. But ultimately, it can help to make work a more inclusive environment.

Lessons in a Doughnut Box

A few weeks ago, my workplace had free doughnuts for employees to enjoy. I couldn’t eat any because of cross-contact concerns – a very common situation for me. Colleagues asked why I wasn’t indulging in the doughnuts. I used the opening to raise my food allergies and explain the risks of cross-contact. 

Back in school, classmates usually didn’t bat an eye when I disclosed my food allergies. But as the first person with anaphylactic food allergies at my workplace, I recognize that many of my colleagues are less familiar with the condition. They don’t know about its strict avoidance requirements. I think that my inability to share in the doughnuts was just as disorienting for many colleagues as it was for me. 

Ultimately, the situation resulted in a productive conversation with my workplace coordinator about food allergy-friendly options to order for next time. While it may be a learning curve for employee and employer alike, I believe that it is by no means insurmountable!

Generation Allergy has conquered daycare, grade school and university, and now it is time for us to conquer the workplace. This is a new challenge, and it may not always be easy. But employers do have a duty to accommodate employees, and in my opinion, this should include food allergies. 

To help encourage the process of accommodation, we can be proactive about our food allergies in the workplace. This happens through intentionally disclosing our food allergies, and educating colleagues on using an auto-injector and the symptoms of an allergic reaction. As well, it’s helpful to offer examples of food allergy-friendly options for workplace events. 

Since this is situation is new to me too, I invite you to share some of your suggestions for managing food allergies in the workplace. Let me know what works for you – or some of your own learning curve moments. Just send me an email at [email protected], with “for Hannah” in the subject line.

Regular contributor Hannah Lank is an articling student and graduate from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.  

Related Reading:
Nut-Allergic and Vegetarian: Hurdles in a Happy Decision
Twitter Jokes About Food Allergy: the Trouble with Disease Disrespect
How Not to Talk to Your Date About Food Allergies