Managing Food Allergies and Intolerances at the Workplace

We can only ‘hide’ our food allergies and intolerances on the job to a certain extent. What should we tell our superiors, colleagues, or even our customers? What is the ideal situation for us at work?

This is an issue I encounter frequently. I am often asked whether and how to broach this subject, especially with one’s superiors. According to German labour law, there is no obligation at all to disclose health-related information to superiors, colleagues or customers with regard to food allergies. But this often plays out differently in real life. We sometimes behave differently at work, and this is bound to be noticed within our professional environment sooner or later – at lunch in the staff restaurant, in the way things are organised at work, at appointments, training sessions, business lunches, colleagues’ birthdays, or in other workplace situations.

As with nearly all situations in life, I prefer to take a constructive approach with our restrictions and ‘differences’. As far as work goes, this means only revealing as much as necessary.

I don’t recommend bringing up allergies or intolerances during a job interview. If you decide to seek a new professional challenge, you will have selected and researched the vacant position as much as you can. This means that you have not only carefully read through the job description, but you have also gathered information about the company. This allows you to get a good feel for the company before the first job interview. One important criterion as to whether a job is right for you is professional qualification. Both parties need to feel at ease with one another. People with food allergies do not perform less effectively and, with proper allergen management, do not get sick more frequently. You can therefore handle this phase with confidence.

Once you have been given the new job, there will be new challenges at work every day. You don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb, nor do you want to be treated like one. All you want is for everything to be as normal as possible, right?

When starting a new job with a food intolerance, some sensitivity is required. On the one hand, you want to avoid making your food intolerance the first (and perhaps the only) thing that your new co-workers know about you. On the other hand, it is impossible not to draw attention to it in certain situations. It gets even more complicated if you have a severe food allergy that can be triggered by the slightest trace of an allergen – in a shared kitchen, for instance. How open you would like to be about your allergy will also depend on the degree to which the behaviour of others affects your health. People with an anaphylactic reaction to nuts should mention it at the latest when organizing the breakfast buffet for the team event, for example. It is probably better to be open it about it from the start. This gives the others a chance to be considerate. If you react to traces of allergens and want to use the shared kitchen, you can ask your colleagues whether they would be willing to refrain from using nuts in the kitchen. If they say yes, it might help to hang a nice poster (for example, an attractive drawing) or an informative memo on the wall.

If your health situation changes during your employment, it can be harder to deal with restrictions than if they had been ‘part of you’ from the start. The situation is new for you too, and it may be difficult for your colleagues to understand. After all, you were fine until now. A diagnosis is often the answer that comes after a long and silent struggle, but you may not want to share this personal information with everyone. This is why the same rule applies in this case: it depends on the situation. Are you having an intimate conversation with a long-standing colleague over lunch? Or is the Christmas menu being decided? Or are five colleagues from another department talking about how a lot of people lately have excluded this or that from their diet? Let your gut feeling and your mood be your guide. It is often helpful to provide your co-workers with some factual information. What ails me? What impact does it have on my body and what happens if I eat something I shouldn’t?

Unfortunately I have heard of people being teased and bullied. In highly competitive environments, any type of perceived weakness can be used to gain the upper hand over a rival. These situations are very specific, and it would be unrealistic for me to offer any general advice. In my personal experience, I have followed the same principle since I was 18 years old: if a situation in life is not good for me, I change it. This has always applied to my work situation as well, and still does.

So what is the ideal work environment?

I think the most important thing is to have tolerant superiors and colleagues. Customers too, but it depends on the focus of the job. A little tolerance already goes a long way.

It would be ideal if the workplace were adapted somewhat to our individual needs. In addition to open-minded superiors, colleagues and customers, this might include a staff restaurant that prepares at least one dish every day that we can tolerate, for example. Ideally our dietary restrictions would be taken into account when arranging seminar catering, business trips, etc. No one needs colleagues who complain all the time!

We ourselves are part of the perfect scenario. We can bring about change by discussing our issues at the right moment in a constructive and transparent way.

20 October 2016. Author: Stefanie Grauer-Stojanovic