Donut parties. Pizza lunches. Bagel Fridays. We don’t need horror movies to get our blood chilled. We just need to hear these words uttered during our workweek.
I was diagnosed with celiac disease in the middle of my professional career. At the time, I was going to an office every day. While I’ve heard many positive stories about friendly workplaces for those on special diets, any blogger can tell you horror stories about malicious coworkers and bosses who won’t accommodate.
It can be hard out there for people with celiac and food allergies – both personally and professionally. So how you do you navigate your workplace? Here are some challenges you might face and how you can survive – and thrive – at work.
Challenge: Mandatory Work Lunches
These are the worst – a lose/lose situation. If you ask for a gluten-free meal to be provided, chances are there will be some screw-up along the way. If you bring your own food, people will wonder if you’re a snob, a weirdo or a picky eater. And sometimes, everyone else gets to eat for free, while you have to pay for your special meal.
(1) Bring your own meal and forget what everyone else thinks about you. You’ll be safer this way and you don’t have to choose from (often) limited selections.
(2) Contact your HR manager ahead of time and ask who’s preparing your meal. Then contact the restaurant directly. Work out with the restaurant and the HR manager how to secure a safe meal.
Challenge: “You Must Have Anorexia”
Sheila from accounting always looks at you funny when you refuse the office snacks, don’t eat at birthday lunches and avoid the break room during lunchtime. She’s been saying some nasty things behind your back. There’s clearly no other reason for you to be avoiding gluten-full foods besides an eating disorder, right?
(1) Explain to Sheila why you don’t eat in front of everyone. Tell her that although it may look like you have a problem, you’re actually healthier than you’ve ever been. Throw in a few thank you’s for her “concerns.”
(2) Don’t like confrontation? Leave a pamphlet about celiac disease from the Celiac Disease Foundation on Sheila’s desk. She’ll get the message. However, I encourage you to talk to people about celiac disease and food allergies. Awareness is awesome. Knowledge is power.
Challenge: Coworkers Are On The Gluten-Free Bandwagon
Matt and Karen from marketing can’t stop singing the praises of Dr. Oz and the gluten-free diet. They both swear they have lost so much weight substituting their cookies and crackers for gluten-free versions. They tell everyone how easy it is to be gluten-free and how no one should be eating gluten anymore…I mean, except for their cheat meals, which they have every day. And the cross-contamination they are constantly exposed to. And the gluten-full dessert they order after they eat their gluten-free meal at the local pizza joint. Then don’t forget Sandy the account executive who says she tried a gluten-free diet but realized she’d “rather die than live without bread.”
This mindset of “a little gluten won’t hurt you” and the fad gluten-free diet can put celiacs in a tight situation. While the popularity of gluten-free living is giving us more options, we still have to maintain a strict 100% cross-contamination free life, including in the workplace.
There’s not much to tell people who are convinced that the gluten-free diet is their next way to lose 20 lbs. However, while in conversation with them about the gluten-free diet, you can always inform them about celiac disease and that you must be on a strict 100% gluten-free diet, which means no cheating, no crumbs – no nothing. When people ask you if you’re on the diet to lose weight, tell them you’re on it because you want to live. Mention that many celiacs gain weight when they are diagnosed because that means that their body is healing. Mention that a great weight-loss diet is eating whole foods that are naturally gluten free.
For those who believe in cheat meals and think that you’re being a little dramatic about the crumbs on the break-room counter, I suggest the “every crumb counts” mantra. Explain that a crumb or less is all you need to get sick. Explain that a celiac will never get to have another cheat meal again – or risk months of recovering from an autoimmune reaction.
Challenge: Less-Than-Scrupulous Coworkers
What if you’re lucky enough to work with another person with celiac disease? You two can frolic around at lunchtime, finding safe places to eat and naturally become best friends, right? But what if you work with a celiac who doesn’t follow the rules? What if your-soon-to-be-best-friend has been spreading myths about safe gluten-free food? What if you suddenly look like the picky eater in a group of celiacs?
(1) Perhaps this coworker hasn’t learned how to be a healthy celiac. I didn’t worry about cross-contamination at first, mostly because no one told me how important it was. You need to take this as an educational moment and talk about the ins-and-outs of celiac disease. You then need to both approach HR and management about making sure you’re both accommodated to the best of their ability.
(2) If the coworker says, “I know I should be strictly gluten-free but I cheat all the time,” it’s time for some serious education. This isn’t just a tummy ache. Inform your coworker that continuing to eat gluten after a celiac diagnosis is a really bad idea. Cheating is never okay. In any event, explain to your management that you must have a strict 100% gluten-free existence during 9-5.
Challenge: Harassment and Discrimination
What if things get nastier? What if coworkers or even your supervisor just don’t understand, regardless of countless chances of education? It might be time to consider the Americans with Disabilities Act.
You might be thinking, is celiac disease a disability? Let’s look at what the ADA considers a disability according to their website and a recent case study involving Lesley University.
A disability as defined by the ADA is a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, such as eating. Major life activities also include major bodily functions, such as the functions of the gastrointestinal system. Some individuals with food allergies have a disability as defined by the ADA, particularly those with more significant or severe responses to certain foods. This would include individuals with celiac disease and others who have autoimmune responses to certain foods, the symptoms of which may include difficulty swallowing and breathing, asthma, or anaphylactic shock.
According to the ADA, discrimination is prohibited in all employment practices, including job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment. It applies to recruitment, advertising, tenure, layoff, leave, fringe benefits, and all other employment-related activities.
Reasonable accommodation is any modification or adjustment to a job or the work environment that will enable a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the application process or to perform essential job functions. Reasonable accommodation also includes adjustments to assure that a qualified individual with a disability has rights and privileges in employment equal to those of employees without disabilities.
What does this mean for someone with celiac disease or a food allergy in the workplace? According to About.com, the ADA might cover opportunities, such as requiring an employer to provide you with a special meal if you needed to attend a lunch meeting where the only food available was provided by that employer, or allowing you more frequent restroom breaks than other workers.
While working with your HR person to talk about ADA compliance might seem difficult, it may be just what you need to function happily and healthfully in your career.
Do you have tips or tricks for navigating a gluten-free or allergy-friendly workplace? What did you do when you started a new job? How did your management team react?
Originally posted July 2014