Telling your new company about your allergy?

This is one I still have to remind myself about occasionally. Unfortunately, big social occasions during work mean catered food, or restaurants that you don’t necessarily get to choose yourself. But this doesn’t mean you should avoid them altogether.

By May-Contain Contributor Kayleigh

When I was a kid, my Mum took care of everything to do with my allergy. She sought out a primary school that was equipped to deal with managing me and my epipen, and when I moved to secondary school she was equally as cautious in making sure that the school nurse knew all about me and to take it seriously if I wasn’t feeling well.

When I left home for university, it dawned on me that I would have to be responsible for myself going forward and make sure that people around me knew about my allergy and what to do if I suffered a reaction. I learned who I needed to tell, and had to try and grow out of the embarrassment I felt every time I ordered food at a restaurant and had to point out my allergy (only for them to say that they couldn’t guarantee there wasn’t cross contamination).

Moving into my first proper job following university I realised that, a few months in, I hadn’t actually mentioned my allergy to a single person. It dawned on me that if I suddenly lost consciousness or had problems breathing, not a single person would know that they needed to react quickly, administer my EpiPen and call an ambulance and quote ‘anaphylaxis’. I made it a priority to tell my line manager, those who sat close to me, and the first aider on my floor.

Fortunately, at that point I was quite settled in the job and didn’t feel too uncomfortable telling anyone. But how do you approach it when you’re new to a company? Often I find it embarrassing to talk about my allergy as I feel that people might not take it seriously and I worry that they think I’m being dramatic by bringing it up. However, after telling a fair few people, I have found that this has never been the case. In fact, most people are curious and want to ask more questions and know how they can help.

That being said, here’s a few things that I think are key when telling people about your allergy at work:

  1. You don’t have to tell everyone, and it doesn’t have to be an announcement. If you’re not confident enough to tell the whole office/team, just make sure that your line manager is aware, or whoever you work with most closely day to day. They are most likely to be the ones near to you if a reaction should occur. In my most recent team, I dropped it in conversation during one of our team meetings in my first week in the job. Turns out one of my colleagues had actually had to administer an EpiPen to a family member once before and was totally clued up on what to do. Ask them if they know what to do if someone has a reaction, and talk them through it if they don’t.

  2. If you have a first aider at work, see if they are trained in administering an EpiPen.
    You can just drop them an email if you don’t want to speak to them directly, but this could be a real comfort to you knowing that if something happens there is someone who is trained and can help. If you were to start having symptoms of an allergic reaction, they’re likely to be the first ones called to help, and they will be a lot quicker to act if they know about your allergy already.  

  3. You don’t have to turn down work events.
    This is one I still have to remind myself about occasionally. Unfortunately, big social occasions during work mean catered food, or restaurants that you don’t necessarily get to choose yourself. But this doesn’t mean you should avoid them altogether. Make sure you speak to the organiser early enough and see if there’s a different restaurant they can go to for your team lunch that you know you can eat at, or enquire if there’s an alternative option that the caterers can make for you. If neither of these is an option, can you go to the event but eat beforehand? Could you take your own food? A lot of the time I will agree to go out with the team, but meet them after the meal if I know it’s not somewhere suitable for me to eat. Or I’ll go along and just have a drink and leave early to get myself some food.

  4. Set expectations
    Fortunately, my allergy has never been set off by someone just eating nuts around me. I know my limits and what might cause a reaction, but if you experience reactions just by being in the same room as the allergen, make sure people know this. If you don’t set expectations/rules about what is/isn’t a trigger for you, then no-one will know how to deal with it, and you can’t blame them for that. As annoying as it is, your allergy is your responsibility, and if you don’t speak up then how is anyone to know.

  5. Don’t be upset if someone forgets your allergy, and don’t be afraid to tell people twice
    We’re all very selfish by nature, and sometimes telling someone you have an allergy gets forgotten about. You’ve had to think about your allergy every time you’ve eaten something that you didn’t prepare, but not everyone else has. People don’t stop to think that Thai restaurants may not offer great nut-free dishes before they book them for work events. I’ve had people sit down on the desk next to me with a bag of nuts and sometimes even offer me one before they click and say ‘I’m so sorry!’. You have to speak up and remind people, no-one else will.

The main thing I’ve learned is not to risk anything out of fear of speaking up. If I’m not confident that I can eat safely, I won’t eat. I will wait until I can get something that I know is ok for me. This goes for work events, but also for home-baked goods in the office and birthday cakes/chocolates. I would rather feel slightly embarrassed for talking about my allergy than risk having a life-threatening reaction.