Allergies at Work: How to Stay Safe and Happy
If communicating with colleagues is challenging, tougher yet is asking an employer for changes to the workspace or company policy to accommodate one’s allergies. Andrea Forsyth, 30, is a personal trainer and fitness consultant who has allergies to dust, trees, flowers and dander in addition to food allergies. When she took a job running a Toronto fitness centre that had old carpet and dusty chairs, she started to wheeze and to get non-stop sniffles. “I saw my doctor and he suggested that I ask the company to rip up the carpet and replace it,” she says. “But I assumed they wouldn’t do that for me.” The company eventually replaced the furniture, but the carpet stayed put. Forsyth never raised the subject but her environmental allergies, fortunately, improved over time.
Stark notes that peers and bosses tend to underestimate the ravages of such allergies. “If their noses are running like taps and their eyes are tearing and their minds are all bogged up, they can’t concentrate because they’re miserable,” he says. Environmental allergies also cause sleep deprivation and some antihistamines cause drowsiness, making employees unhealthy, less productive and more likely to call in sick. Such an environment also costs the employer.
Stark suggests that, if an employer isn’t likely to make expensive improvements, an allergic employee might have success asking for a portable HEPA filter for his or her workspace. Such a machine can significantly reduce exposure to dust, pollen and dander.
Barbara Moses, author of career planning guides and president of BBM Human Resource Consultants, notes as well that valued staff may have more clout on the job than they think. She advises approaching the boss about accommodating allergies in a matter of fact and unapologetic manner. “Indicate that a doctor has told you this and ask for the changes that you want made.” If the employer isn’t willing, it’s up to the employee to make a compelling argument for why accommodation should be made. “That’s in the employer’s favour because they get to keep a talented employee,” Moses says.
When it comes to the food allergic, it’s often possible to meet their requirements at catered business functions. But it does take some advance work. People with food allergies are usually able to request a special meal (calling a hotel’s restaurant ahead of time to discuss) or they may offer to bring their own food to be served (in the case of multiple allergies). The service industry is becoming better equipped to deal with such needs, and increasingly professional chefs are trained in issues of food substitution and avoiding cross-contamination. The “special meal” also cuts down on embarrassment at the corporate dinner table: the guest simply mentions the pre-arranged special request to the waiter, who serves it at dinner.
The lunch or dinner brought onto the company premises can prove more problematic. For instance, Jody Denny, a 29-year-old graphic designer in Woodstock, New Brunswick, once asked if a catered meal could exclude her triggers – she’s allergic to shellfish, and has sensitivities to meat, chocolate and some fruits. A colleague complained, and the boss told Denny that “‘this was out of control and I wasn’t being fair to the rest of the people’. I had to go calm myself. I was like, ‘oh my God, these people want me to die.’ They obviously did not understand.
”To communicate the seriousness of her condition, Denny printed 50 pages of information from the Internet on food allergies, anaphylaxis and asthma. She insisted that the information be kept in her file.
Stark sees his patients grappling to strike a balance at work between protecting themselves from harm and being too nonchalant to avoid awkward situations. He says patients often fall into one of two extremes: those who ignore their allergies and become risk-takers or those who become too strident. Those in the latter group can end up antagonizing co-workers about what they can eat and what can be in the environment. Persaud suggests the best way to drive home the severity of an allergy is to tell a story about an allergic reaction, including what triggered it, what symptoms resulted, and the medical treatment required. Calmly told, this can have an impact.
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