Starting a new job can be scary. Having food allergies adds a whole other dimension to those first-day nerves. When should I tell my coworkers about my allergies? What if there are business lunches that I have to miss out on? How do I tell my boss about my allergies? These were some of the worries I had when I started my job three weeks ago. Recently, I've learned a lot about managing my food allergy anxiety that I want to share with you in the hopes that it may help you or someone you know with food allergies ease some of the anxiety they may have when starting a new job.
For some context, I've had many jobs before this one, but this is my first full-time job. In the past, working part-time allowed me to avoid team lunches and catered meals, so my food allergies rarely came up at work. For the most part, I would bring safe snacks to work, eat them on my breaks, and then go home and eat my full meal then.
On the first day of my new job, we had a catered team lunch. I knew there was a good chance the food would not be safe for me and I didn't want to risk it, so I brought my own packed lunch and have been doing the same every day since. This brings me to my first tip:
BRING YOUR OWN LUNCH
If your allergies aren't as severe or you feel safe purchasing lunch elsewhere, then by all means do what feels best for you. But in my experience, bringing my own lunch has saved me a lot of time, money, and anxiety. Making my own lunch means I know exactly what I'm eating and I know it will be safe for me. For me, it's not worth it to place an order at a restaurant I'm not familiar with just to fit in with my coworkers. Plus, it's fun to get creative with your lunches and can be a way to bond with your coworkers. I've found that many of mine are fellow foodies and are interested in what I cook up each week. Last week, I made a pesto chicken pasta salad.
2. TELL YOUR COWORKERS AND BOSS ABOUT YOUR ALLERGIES ASAP
I can't emphasize this one enough. It's so important that everyone you work with understands what you are allergic to, what happens when you come into contact with or ingest that allergen, and how to treat an allergic reaction so that they don't accidentally create an unsafe environment for you and know how to help during a reaction. You'll probably find that people ask a lot of questions at first about your allergies and while this can eventually get tiring, remember that them asking lots of questions means that they want to understand and learn about your allergies. This is the time to be patient and teach the people around you about something they may have never been aware of that can help them in the future when they come across another person with food allergies!
I usually tell new people about my allergies when the topic of food comes up or when we are eating because it feels most natural, but I would suggest not waiting past your first day to let the people around you know about them. The last thing you want is for people to buy you a meal that you are allergic to or create a dangerous environment for you by leaving unsafe food out nearby.
3. ALWAYS CARRY YOUR MEDICAL KIT + DISINFECTING WIPES WITH YOU
My rule wherever I go is to always carry my medical kit with me and some basic cleaning supplies, especially during a pandemic. It's crucial that you carry at least 2 epinephrine auto-injectors and whatever medications you may need with you at all times in case of an allergic reaction. I carry a plastic bag with my Epi-Pens, inhaler, Benadryl pills, Benadryl spray, and Pepto-Bismol in my work bag so I am never without life-saving medicine.
Now more than ever, it's important to be washing your hands and practicing good hygiene, but cleaning supplies are also helpful for wiping down surfaces that may have had your allergen on it. For instance, I wipe down the table in my breakroom at work before I eat because I often see people eat unsafe food for me, like pastries, at that table. It's better to be safe and wipe down any surfaces you may be using for a prolonged period than risk getting hives or having a reaction, depending on how severe your allergy is.
4. PRIORITIZE YOUR SAFETY
This might sound like a no-brainer, but I struggle with prioritizing my safety over appeasing others, especially in a new environment. I have constantly to push myself to be assertive and speak up for myself often because I would rather be perceived as polite and easygoing. But, the truth is that your safety and well-being need to be a top priority.
People might forget your allergies. They might forget what you're allergic to, the severity of your allergies, or that you have food allergies at all. This can lead to some unsafe situations, so it's important to speak up for yourself and kindly remind your colleagues about your allergy and how severe it is. Any decent person will understand and want to help you feel comfortable and safe in your workplace.
Let's take a look at a hypothetical scenario and see how we might react:
You just started your new job last week and told your boss and all your coworkers about your severe dairy and shellfish allergies on your first day. Everyone was extremely understanding and receptive when you talked about your allergies. Today, your boss walks into the office carrying a box of donuts for everyone to share. You watch as she goes around to each person's desk, allowing them to pick out a donut with a napkin. You notice some of your coworkers eating donuts and crumbs getting onto many shared surfaces. What do you do?
If this was me in the scenario, I would say to my boss as soon as possible something like, "Good morning, it's very generous of you to bring donuts in for us, but I just wanted to remind you of my dairy allergy. Unfortunately, that means I can't eat donuts and I can't touch or be close to them as well. I'm going to wipe down some of the common areas I know I will be using to ensure there are no traces of dairy but moving forward, would you mind ordering other treats? I'd be happy to share a list of some safe options with you."
Of course, there are a ton of different ways to approach this scenario. The important thing is to speak to your boss as soon as you can, remind them of the severity of your allergy and what you are allergic to, discuss the importance of needing to clean surfaces that may be contaminated with your allergen, and share some safe alternatives with them.
Those are my main tips for managing food allergies at a new job, but let me know on Instagram @tsoyum or Facebook any other tips or advice you have to share! And to anyone starting a new job soon, you're going to do amazing 💜