Accommodating those with allergies makes for a better workplace—and can be good for business.
From life-threatening reactions to low productivity, allergies can wreak havoc in the workplace.
Allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S., with an annual cost in excess of $18 billion. More than 50 million Americans suffer from allergies each year, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
In addition, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America estimates that allergies and asthma cause Americans to lose more than six million work and school days annually.
New approaches—including medical treatment, workplace accommodations and, yes, creative cooking—aim to take the sting out of living with allergies.
Allergies generally fall into four categories: seasonal (tree, grass, weed, pollen), environmental (mold, latex, animal dander and debris), irritants (dust, industrial chemicals, resins, perfumes and odorants) and food (peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, eggs, milk, wheat, soy).
Seasonal allergies are on the rise, most likely due to changes in weather patterns, says Dr. Princess Ogbogu, director of the division of allergy and immunology at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Warmer winters make conditions ripe for longer and more intense pollination so “when people say this was the worst pollen season ever, they're actually right,” she says.
Seasonal allergies can thwart productivity in a number of ways. Congestion, drainage, sinuspressure and headaches prevent people from getting enough oxygen when they're sleeping, so they're fatigued upon waking, says Dr. Summit Shah, an allergist with Premier Allergy.
“People feel foggy and not at their best,” says Ogbugu, adding that some evidence suggests allergy symptoms and sleep problems affect depression.
Allergies can disrupt the work day subtly, as well. Ogbogu says it can be embarrassing to suffer symptoms, such as sniffling, sneezing and coughing, near others. Sitting in an important meeting with a headache and sinus pain also doesn't lead to peak performance, she notes.
And if the allergy symptoms themselves aren't enough to impair you, the side effects of medications also can pack a wallop. Second-generation antihistamines—the go-to treatment for seasonal allergy symptoms—are less sedating. Doctors also suggest nasal sprays because they are locally acting and don't cross the blood-brain barrier. Ideally, Shah says, patients should begin to use them the week before allergy seasons start.
Workplaces themselves can aggravate allergies. Co-workers may carry in animal dander on their clothing, and mold in buildings triggers symptoms. Although technically not allergens, dust and scents are irritants and can worsen symptoms, Ogbogu says. Some people with allergies may ask their employers to send out emails about the issue, and, “at our clinic, we ask people not to wear perfume.”
She knows of people who have changed jobs due to allergies but hopes that can be avoided. “Before you leave your job, come see an allergist. We can help you find out what you're allergic to and how to manage it the best way possible.”
Most companies want their employees to be productive, so it makes sense to accommodate them when possible, she adds. Businesses can help by checking for mold, providing good air filtration systems or keeping windows closed and air conditioning on during peak season, Shah says.
Accommodation is the name of the game for restaurateur Matt Prokopchak, chef and co-owner of Trattoria Roma restaurant in Grandview Heights. Procopchak says he's been conscious of gluten-free customers for years and has found options to safely serve those with allergies and dietary restrictions.
A key part of being able to do that lies in food sourcing, and in Prokopchak's case, “We are able to accommodate almost everything because everything is made in house and made to order. We are the source.”
Communication is another critical factor. The restaurant trains its staff to know exactly what is in each dish so they can inform diners; if a special request is made, that information is communicated down the line and back up to the time the food reaches the table.
Prokopchak says he's received calls at home from employees who want to double-check something.
“It's often a very sophisticated conversation that happens between the server and the customer these days,” says John Barker, president and CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association. “The whole process is so much better than it was even five years ago.”
The industry has responded to allergies and other food safety issues in a number of ways. The National Restaurant Association ServSafe Allergens Training Program encompasses cross contact, cleaning, food labels, deliveries, work stations, self-serve areas and food preparation.
Barker says catering to guests with allergies and diet restrictions doesn't affect menu pricing significantly. “The replacement cost of some of these ingredients is not that great.”
Often, Prokopchak says, the most important ingredient is time. His restaurant has a loyal customer with a black pepper allergy who calls ahead to arrange her meal so that she can eat safely. “In 48 hours, we can make almost anything happen,” he says.
Cooking without garlic in an Italian restaurant, or finding delicious gluten-free pasta, can be a bit of a challenge, Prokopchak says, but with a few exceptions (shellfish being one), “There's always another way.”
“Chefs can get pretty darn creative,” Barker observes. “They kind of like it.”
Laurie Allen is a freelance writer.