Since Food Allergy Awareness Month is right around the corner, we’ve got a pop quiz for you. (Don’t worry, it’s really short.)
What are food allergies?
(A) an intolerance or sensitivity
(B) a life-threatening disability
If your answer was B, gold star! 🌟
If you weren’t sure, or if you got it wrong, you’re not alone. At best, food allergies are misunderstood. At worst? They are not taken seriously or treated like an inconvenience.
Look around you, 1 in 13 of your co-workers are living with a life-threatening allergy to one or more foods. So what better time to try and gain an understanding of the challenges experienced by a good many of your colleagues and friends?
People with food allergies blend in with the rest of us pretty well—no wonder it’s considered an “invisible” disability—but that doesn’t necessarily make life any easier. In fact, not speaking up about it can put their lives at risk. And that’s why they need our support and understanding more than you may know.
So how can you help? Do what you can to make sure your colleagues feel safe, included and comfortable to speak up. In short, be a team player!
First things first, understand and acknowledge that a food allergy is not a food intolerance or a seasonal allergy. While symptoms can include diarrhea and vomiting, or itchy, watery eyes and sneezing, they can also include swelling of the tongue, difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness or even death. Letting your colleagues know that you take their food allergies seriously, and that you understand they are not a lifestyle choice, is a great first step.
But there are other steps you can take to help keep your colleagues safe.
- Learn which foods they are allergic to, and find out if their reactions are airborne, contact, or only upon ingestion. If their reactions are airborne, refrain from eating their allergen in front of them. That simple act could save a life.
- Clean up any crumbs or residue after eating a snack or meal that contains their allergens. Then wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water. (Pro tip! Hand sanitizers do not kill an allergen’s protein, so it’s always better to wash your hands the old fashioned way.
- Ask them where they keep their EpiPens, and talk to them about their emergency plan. In the event of an anaphylactic reaction, the EpiPen should always be administered first, then call 911.
- If you feel comfortable doing so, you may ask them to train you on how to use the EpiPen. Spoiler alert: It’s super duper simple. The good news is, that most adults can administer their own shot of epinephrine during a severe reaction. But knowing how to help in the rare case they lose consciousness before they’ve had the chance could save their life.
- If you offer them a homemade treat, don’t push it if they politely decline. Something as simple a may contain warning on the label could make a “safe” food unsafe for them. They’re used to triple-checking all ingredient lists—you’re not. Remember, people with food allergies don’t mean to offend you by not accepting your lovely homemade muffins. They are just trying to stay alive!
Having food allergies can be extremely isolating at times. Why? Because most social events revolve around food! For people with life-threatening food allergies it is often easier to opt out rather than having to make special requests every time.
If you want to make sure your food-allergic colleagues aren’t missing out, there are things you can do (or suggest) to make them feel included.
- If you and a co-worker with food allergies are work buds, why not join the social committee together? If they know you have their back, they may feel less inclined to stay silent about their needs.
- Advocate for social events that don’t necessarily include food. What about participating in a team sport with your office mates? Group workouts, game nights, karaoke or volunteering together are all great ways to get social without sitting around a table covered in food.
- Food-centred work events are sometimes unavoidable. In these cases, it doesn’t hurt to put the person with allergies in charge of meal planning. They will likely be well-versed in doing the detective work needed to find an accommodating caterer that can customize meals or seeking out an allergy-friendly restaurant that makes them feel safe.
- If you want to hang out one-on-one, make it simple by suggesting food-free activities, like going for a walk over your lunch break, grabbing a coffee or drink, or going to a movie.
- Don’t make jokes at their expense! While it can be easy to resort to humour in an awkward situation, remember that food allergies are a disability. And while many comedians still think it’s okay to poke fun at food-allergic individuals, the reality is, it’s no worse than making a visible disability the butt of your joke. Just don’t do it!
Remember food allergies are not a lifestyle choice—they are a life-or-death disability. And while it can be frustrating to have to keep your favourite snack at home, is it really worth putting a colleague’s health, and possibly life, at risk?
A great way to encourage empathy is by talking the talk AND walking the walk. Speak up about work events that aren’t inclusive. Make an effort to wash your hands and the table after you’ve eaten a meal containing a colleague’s allergens.
If your workplace gives its employees an anonymous space to make suggestions or provide feedback, why not suggest incorporating food allergies into your wellness program? For Food Allergy Awareness Month (May), you could suggest an office challenge, where employees must avoid top allergens for 1 day to see what life is like living without these common foods.
As more and more youth enter the workforce, the number of co-workers with food allergies will continue to climb. Why? Because the majority of people affected by food allergies are under 35, and the number continues to go up the younger the generation.
The sooner we create an atmosphere of support and empathy, the easier it will be for these individuals to do the work they were hired to do while feeling like they are a valued part of the team. Be a team player—go start a conversation with your food-allergic colleague. You might be surprised to learn what small things you can do to help them feel safe and included.
Public Health Reminder from Nurse Tracy
If you are personally dealing with a food sensitivity and routinely tell people you are ‘allergic’ but actually do not require an EpiPen for treatment, you are helping add to the confusion about the seriousness of true allergies. Let’s all do our part to understand and make a distinction between discomfort versus a life-threatening reaction!