As the trend of wellness programs continues to grow across the country, employees suffering from food allergies or more serious illnesses such as celiac disease are seeking to expand the definition of wellness and well-being to include the gluten-free community.

Celiac disease, also known as celiac sprue or gluten-sensitive enteropathy, is a digestive and autoimmune disorder that results in damage to the lining of the small intestine when foods with gluten are eaten, according to WebMD. The damage to the intestine makes it hard for the body to absorb nutrients, especially fat, calcium, iron and folate.

Bloomberg/file photo

In a recent survey by Beyond Celiac, an advocacy organization for celiac disease, of the 2,406 people surveyed, nearly 41% strongly agreed with the statement: “I feel like I am limited in eating meals with coworkers.”

In the same survey, nearly 50% of surveyors said they decided not to pursue life experiences because it would require explaining their gluten-free needs such as starting a new job or being eligible for a promotion.

Alice Bast, founder and president of Beyond Celiac, says about one in every 133 people have celiac disease and, as time progresses, that number may increase four-fold in the coming years.

“People with celiac disease have to be on a 100% gluten-free diet all of the time,” Bast says. “From the minute they get up in the morning to the time they go to bed, and they have to make sure that there isn’t any kind of cross contact.”

Bast says people with celiac disease cannot have any type of gluten touching their food for fear of becoming ill. For example, Bast says even picking croutons off of a salad would not be enough to prevent a reaction, should that person with celiac disease ingest that salad.

“If employers are noticing that some employees are not engaged or participating in social outings involving food, they need to understand that those employees may have a medical restriction to their diet,” Bast says. “They need to look at how they can create a positive environment for their employees with this disease by possibly having their food service professionally [catered] at very minimal cost.”

Elizabeth Johnson, creator of and someone living with celiac disease, says employers can help accommodate employees suffering for celiac disease by having basic standards to prevent cross contamination:

1) Have gluten-free options from a gluten-free specific shop
When having a workplace luncheon or an event where food is being served, Johnson says having a separate plate that is specifically designated as gluten-free would greatly increase inclusion of employees who have the disease.

“If someone brings in cupcakes from a bakery and the bakery also does gluten-free cupcake as well as normal cupcakes, it is very likely there will be cross contamination,” Johnson says. “If [the employer] could bring in cupcakes from a gluten-free bakery that would be a better option.”

2) Making sure business dinners in restaurants have gluten-free options
If the employer is having a business meal at a restaurant, calling ahead to the restaurant to make sure there are gluten-free options will help build trust and inclusion with employees with celiac disease.

“A lot of [restaurants are not necessarily educated on the disease,” Johnson says. “Employers should take steps to make sure food remains separated.”

3) Educate all employees on the effects of celiac disease
When incorporating the gluten-free lifestyle into business’s wellness program, taking the steps to make sure everyone in the workplace understands the disease will make those with celiac feel less isolated.

4) Making business trips celiac safe
If an employer decides to send one of his or her employees on a trip where they are required to take a flight or stay in a hotel, ensuring the flight or hotel has gluten-free options is that extra step for maintaining their employee’s safety.

“If the hotel could have a kitchenette, [the employee] can have a separate place away from common areas to prepare their food,” Johnson says. “I talk to a lot of people who say they get sick when they travel for business and that is something they continue to struggle with.”

Both Bast and Johnson say it can be difficult for people suffering from celiac disease to notify employers because of fears of not getting a new job or not getting a higher position in the company; however, both say employees should be notifying their employers of this disease so that employers can take the necessary steps to ensure their safety and lead the way for total workplace understanding of this ever-growing disease.

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