Is Your Company Culture Causing Unintended Suffering for Allergic Staff?

Company culture can be a big reason someone is drawn to working for a company, and a strong culture can keep employees for the long run. Many companies have raised the bar in terms of expectations as more are trying to compete with Silicon Valley-type companies – free access to bikes on company campus, catered meals, and weekly after work happy hours.

Some of these well intended workplace activities can be dangerous for employees who have chronic allergy. One in five people have environmental allergies, and one in 13 have a food allergy – how many in your organization are impacted? How well do your corporate cultural activities accommodate them? 

Bake offs, potlucks, happy hours

Though not as common during the COVID-19 pandemic, in-office bake offs and potlucks are a great way to get employees out of their cubicles and interacting with each other. But, it also creates tricky terrain for those with food allergy. 

While a bag of chips may have ingredients listed, making it straightforward, a casserole baked by a coworker doesn’t come with a list of possible allergens. Those affected may pick and choose items that could be safe for them, or they may opt out altogether, knowing that cross contact is possible with many people serving themselves from the same dishes.  

Out-of-office activities often revolve around food, too, including happy hours or lunch outings at your local restaurant. These culture activities can make the food-allergic employee feel excluded, unsafe and embarrassed of their dietary needs.

Culture shift: You don’t have to eliminate these activities, but add in culture enhancing activities that don’t involve food – keep it 50/50. Ask food allergic employees for restaurants where they feel safe entering and eating, and prioritize those for your out-of-office lunch breaks. Consider posting known allergies that can be avoided, or at least properly labeled, at potlucks.

Community kitchen

Having a staff kitchen on site to prep lunches, store food and wash dishes is an incredible perk for employees; making bringing their own lunch possible. Often, this is something people with food allergy rely on. 

But, it can be a hazard. Spilled milk on the counter, peanut crumbs on a towel, egg in the sink – even a small trace of an offending food can cause reactions. The problem food doesn’t necessarily have to be ingested to cause symptoms; just touching them can cause skin reactions.

Culture shift: If possible, designate an allergy-free fridge, or an allergy-free shelf or compartment in a shared fridge. Allergy-free foods should go on the top shelf to ensure allergenic foods don’t land on the safe foods. Implement thorough cleaning measures after each use of the microwave or oven. 

Pets at work

This is an at-work policy that’s becoming increasingly popular. Some workplaces allow employees to bring pets to work every day, while others allow this on a designated day each week. It’s all cute and cuddly until an allergic employee experiences symptoms. 

Pet allergies can cause itchy and watery eyes, sneezing or nasal congestion, hives, and can trigger asthma. This is not only bothersome to the employee, but can cause a lack of productivity, directly impacting employers.

Culture shift: Send a survey to all employees before implementing this change to allow them to disclose their pet allergy. If it’s a common allergy in your company, reconsider. A time for employees to bring their pets outside, together could be a safer alternative, or have a designated pet-friendly space that is located away from general work spaces. 

Customizing your workspace

Customizing your workspace makes it less like an office and more like a home away from home. Surprisingly, there are a lot of ways to customize such a small area. 

Employees may take the customization opportunity to diffuse essential oils or use fragrance sprays. There are sprays often used in restrooms, and some individuals wear perfume or cologne to work, which can make it difficult to find a fragrance-free zone. 

Some with allergies, and especially those with asthma, find that fragrances can exacerbate their symptoms. Breathing in these particles can aggravate the inflammation that already exists because of underlying allergy and asthma. 

Culture shift: Allow employees to customize their workspaces, but implement a no fragrance policy, or designate areas where fragrances are off limits. 

The list of corporate culture enhancements goes on and on, and many of them could impact allergy, asthma, and other allergic conditions. Other materials and exposures outside of the typical office scenario can impact employees, too.  

As an employee, you must take different precautions to make yourself safe and comfortable at work. As an employer, you have the opportunity to not only make environmental adjustments, but can offer disease modifying treatment to your employees, too. Learn about how Allergychoices’ Allergy Control Program can help lower spend by treating the root cause of underlying allergy.

By Taylor Pasell, Allergychoices