Dealing with allergy triggers, gross eaters, and a deskside crying jag

How to keep things professional when it feels like you can’t control others—or even yourself

As the space between work and not-work becomes ever more blurred, questions about how to do this thing we plug away at for 30 or 40 or 70 hours a week become all the more expansive. In Work Flow, we delve into the novel dilemmas created by the new ways we work, as well as timeless questions about ethics, gender assumptions, and toxic work situations (and how to escape them). How we work is an important component of how we live—and we’re here to help you do better at both.

Something messing with your flow? Unload your work problems here, and you’ll not only feel heard but you’ll also get unbiased, real-world advice. (That’s something your work sibling/spouse just can’t offer.) Tell us everything:

I have a coworker who is a lovely person, other than the fact that he keeps bringing in food that I’m deathly allergic to, i.e., anaphylactic shock levels. I’ve asked him to stop, but he just doesn’t seem to get it. He claims he forgets and is always apologetic, but he keeps bringing in the same stuff! Please help!

I do not think this is a lovely person at all! Maybe this is a relatively OK person, except for the fact that he’s a big jerk who keeps bringing in something that might get you sick and… cause you to die. That’s pretty uncool, really, and your company probably has some policy against it—in general, companies do want to keep you safe and healthy and not subject you to undue harm while on the job, not least because if you have to be ambulanced away from the workplace, you can’t work, and also there could be some pretty major liability issues on their part. Luckily, you know very clearly what you’re allergic to. Now you just have to get your company to help you make that clear to your coworker.

Since you talking nicely to the guy hasn’t changed his ways, I suggest going to your company HR (if you have no HR, talk to your boss) and explain your situation (they should know, anyway, so that they can help you in an emergency). A doctor’s note may help. Even though many people suffer from life-threatening allergies like you do, it’s unfortunately also true that some people still think allergy sufferers are just “picky eaters” or fussy. Your doctor’s weigh-in informing the workplace that this is indeed a life-or-death issue should make it clear your case is not something to be taken lightly. In fact, your level of allergic reaction would fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which means your employer has to give you certain protective accommodations, like insisting this guy leaves his PBJ (or whatever the offending substance is) at home. They should really forbid the food in the office altogether, akin to the way airlines do when someone on board has a peanut allergy. It’s not worth the risk—to you or to them. This guy surely has other things he can eat. If your company doesn’t make accommodations, it’s time to talk to a lawyer.

Oh, also, I’m sure you already have an EpiPen or one of the new generic forms of the shot… keep it with you at all times, just in case.

Most of the people in my office eat at their desks, which I guess is kind of problematic, but that’s the company culture. I wouldn’t mind, except come lunchtime everyday I’m surrounded by gross eaters, like one guy who chews super loudly and another person who gets whatever she’s eating all over her keyboard and desk area. I just feel so grossed out all the time I don’t even want to eat my lunch! Is there anything I can do?

These food questions are making me hungry. OK, so back when I was a blogger, I would eat lunch at my desk daily, and one day I was so committed to the task at hand that when I accidentally knocked my salad off my desk, I let its many components lie on the floor around me while I finished my post, because it was so urgent to publish. Dear former coworkers: I am sorry. Let this be a cautionary tale. It is not healthy or sane not to take a proper lunch break. Even though your coworkers are clearly monsters, I really think you’re better off letting them be disgusting at the office and taking your lunch in the outside world. Find a nice grassy spot in a park! Grab a slice and go for a short walk! Or perhaps you have a company break room that is empty since everyone eats at their desk? Eat there!

You definitely could also say something, but I just don’t think that loud, gross eaters are going to fix their loud, gross eating. They may not even be able to. Do you also get grossed out in restaurants or at the dinner table, or is it just that your colleagues are particularly medieval? If it’s the former, you might have a particular sensitivity to these noises—misophonia is “a strong dislike or hatred of specific sounds.” Note, per WebMD, “Individuals with misophonia often report they are triggered by oral sounds—the noise someone makes when they eat, breathe, or even chew.” (You’re certainly not the only one who feels this way.) If you do think you have misophonia, therapy may be able to help.

Another solution, if you really just can’t bear to leave your desk during the workday, is to get yourself some noise-canceling headphones and wear them while those around you chomp and spray their hunger away. Keep your eyes focused on your computer screen and maybe you won’t even notice. But, um, doesn’t taking yourself out for a nice lunch—whether it’s in a café or on a park bench with your homemade sandwich—sound even better?

The other day I was having a really bad moment, feeling overwhelmed on the job and about my life in general, and my boss caught me crying at my desk. How do I live this down?

I completely understand how you feel. After all, we live in a society in which tears often equal seeming “out of control” or “hysterical” (and are fraught in different ways whether we’re women or men) but know this: It is OK! You do not have to live this down. Tears are an exceedingly normal part of life, and one that society would be better off embracing instead of frowning upon.

Researchers say crying can be a really healthy way to relieve stress. It helps us self-soothe and can boost our mood. And crying is actually an evolutionary response that triggers compassion and support from those around you. Lots and lots of people have cried in the office, me included. According to a survey from the staffing firm Accountemps, 45 percent of workers confessed they’d done it, and about the same percentage of CFOs said crying on the job was “acceptable as long as it’s not an everyday occurrence.”

Since it seems like you’re not on a crying jag, my recommendation is to simply keep on doing your work and being the best employee you can be—no need to mention the tears. With a bit of time, no one is going to be thinking about it at all. If your boss brings it up (perhaps his or her compassion response was triggered), you can explain what you told me: You were feeling overwhelmed that day. But if you do feel like crying more days than not, or if the overwhelmed feeling is happening more and more, I’d suggest seeking out a psychologist with whom you can explore any underlying issues. There’s no better place to cry than a therapist’s office, take it from me.

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