Allergies at Work: How to Stay Safe and Happy
It was the afternoon of Rob Kania’s first day on the job at a marketing firm. Everyone was gathered for a celebration of a colleague’s birthday. The person being feted started handing out slices of cake. Kania said “no thanks” to a piece, and his new colleague looked taken aback. Her look said: “Who is this rude guy?”
Kania, who lives in Victoria, remembers this incident two years ago as “horrible”; he had wanted to make a good impression on the first day. He turned down the birthday cake because of his peanut allergy, but Kania, then 21, didn’t say that. “There were 30 bigwigs standing around and I did not want to be out of place.” In hindsight, it would have better if he had just been upfront about his condition.
Kania’s awkwardness with allergy in an office situation is hardly unusual. While great strides are being made in spreading allergy awareness and precautions in the schools, there is much less support and few allergy-friendly policies in the grownup working world of the business lunch, the office party (with its trays of mystery hors d’oeuvres) and the catered conference. Allergic Living spoke to employees with both food and environmental allergies in a variety of professions to discover how they coped on the job. Some are vocal with their bosses and colleagues about their conditions, but many are not.
Those with environmental allergies or asthma triggers (ranging from dust and mould to VOC paints and other chemicals) often suffer their symptoms in silence in their workplaces. And when it comes to food allergies, many who are at risk of anaphylaxis admit they have taken dangerous chances rather than stand out among their peers.
Raising the Subject
Tracy Hill had wanted to keep her allergies to fish and shellfish quiet at work, “whispered,” she says. Hill, 42, is a radiation therapist at a hospital in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Then one day at a conference, she had a life-threatening reaction to some Mexican food, resulting in an ambulance ride to the hospital. “That taught me a lesson,” she says. “Although I don’t like to draw attention to myself, it’s way better to have that conversation than have a big scene with an EpiPen in your leg and the stretcher coming.”
Dr. Mitch Persaud, a Saskatoon allergist, encourages patients to tell colleagues about their allergies from the get-go rather than waiting until they’re breaking out in hives and wheezing. He says some patients avoid doing so because they feel that their allergies are under control. “I don’t think that’s the approach,” he says. “Mistakes can occur any time.”
When a job requires working with customers, raising the topic of your allergies may require a degree of finesse. Peter Burnside, a 47-year-old Toronto salesman, travels continuously for work and eats as many as 15 meals a week in restaurants, often with clients. When his allergies to nuts, peanuts and barley come up, he tries to explain briefly and then steer the conversation back to his clients. “I wouldn’t want the first thing they think to be, ‘Hey, he’s allergic to nuts.’ Rather, ‘he’s got a great product’ – that’s what you want them to think.” Burnside adds: “You definitely don’t want to appear weak.”
Similarly, Colleen Serban, a 30-year-old photographer from Kenora, Ontario, told Allergic Living that she has to be concerned about whether her hayfever and asthma will cost her business. She strives to avoid photographing clients outdoors during the spring and fall because her medications sometimes cause her hands to shake. “I don’t want them to think I’m not able to do the job.” Serban also photographs weddings and feels embarrassed asking what’s on the menu for dinner shortly after she has landed a contract. She doesn’t want to leave the bride feeling: “I just hired her, and now she wants to decide what our meal is.”
June Traptow can relate. She, too, is a photographer and owns a studio in Red Deer, Alberta. Traptow, 49, has allergies and intolerances to nuts, dairy, gluten and eggs, and is often left scrambling for safe food at the catered events she attends to network with other business owners. She is concerned that when such peers and potential clients learn of her allergies, they may think she’s difficult to please. When they watch her at a meal – perhaps sending back a salad with croutons – some will also become paternal. “They want to look after my food problems, and that becomes an issue of credibility,” she says.
Dr. Donald Stark, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia and a Vancouver allergist, agrees that “people who don’t have allergies aren’t always particularly sympathetic to the allergy sufferer.” They may assume incorrectly, “it’s just a runny nose or a few hives, what are you making a big fuss about?” But he says the only safe route for the person with allergies and/or asthma is to get past the embarrassment and to inform bosses and colleagues about such a condition. Persaud, the Saskatoon allergist, advises the patient with food allergies to explain the allergy basics to co-workers in a pleasant and non-confrontational manner. He says it’s important to let them know that reactions can be life-threatening, and to ask for co-operation to avoid exposure to an allergen in the workplace. As well, he suggests that at least one other person in the office know where the allergic person keeps the epinephrine auto-injector.
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