Scared of having an IBS attack at work? You're not alone. Working with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) can be difficult for many people. Whether it's the fear of an IBS flare-up, embarrassment about sharing a bathroom, or experiencing concentration difficulties—it can feel like there are countless ways IBS can stop you from feeling comfortable and confident at work.
Is IBS affecting your work life?
Have you ever gone to work with diarrhea for fear of losing your job or letting people down?
Have you ever wanted to talk to your boss or to HR about your condition but felt too embarrassed to bring it up?
Have you ever spent so much time worrying about IBS that you struggled to concentrate on work tasks?
If you've answered 'yes' to any (or all) of the above questions, then your IBS may be negatively affecting your work life. IBS has been shown to affect people's daily activities, including productivity. When dealing with regular bouts of abdominal pain, diarrhea, and anxiety, it's not uncommon for your professional life to take a hit.
If you feel like IBS is ruining your work life or have found yourself wondering, "how on earth do I tell my boss I have diarrhea?", then read on to discover some tips on how to manage your IBS in the workplace.
How to improve your work life with IBS
Working with IBS can be difficult, but there are several ways you make working with IBS symptoms easier on your and your workplace.
To manage IBS at work, consider the following strategies:
- Get up early: Allow enough time for breakfast and your toilet routine before leaving for work.
- Don't keep your IBS a secret: As the saying goes, "if you don't ask, you don't get." Tell the right people at work about your symptoms and explain how you may need specific accommodations (such as extended bathroom breaks). If needed, ask your GP to write you a letter explaining your condition and how it impacts your life. Don't be afraid of over-sharing: IBS is a health condition, you are advocating for yourself!
- Bring your lunch to work: Avoid eating on the run or consuming shared office meals that might contain your trigger foods.
- Keep hydrated and limit your caffeine intake: Coffee, as you may know, is a common IBS trigger for many people.
- Find an ‘IBS Buddy’: Let a close colleague at work know about your condition so that they can support you if you need to leave early or step out of a meeting.
- Reduce stress: Try and implement a few stress-relieving activities into your daily routine, such as meditation, yoga, or tai chi.
Remember: For some people, their IBS can be so severe it amounts to a disability. If that is the case, it's the employer's legal duty to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace. Make sure you are not being discriminated against. Check your rights, the work legislation, and any benefits you might be entitled to.
Prepare for a possible IBS attack at work
Despite all the precautions you may take, accidents can still happen. It's good to carry an emergency IBS kit with you to work, so if anything does happen, you will be ready for it.
Depending on your predominant IBS subtype (IBS-D, IBS-C, or IBS-M), what you pack will be unique to you, however, some good ideas for an emergency kit include:
- Spare underwear/clothing
- Perfume or spray
- Some 'IBS safe' snacks
- Peppermint tea bags
- Bottled water
- IBS medicines
When to call in sick with IBS
Many people with IBS feel guilty about calling in sick. However, it's important to remember that IBS is real and that it has a significant impact on people's lives. If you're feeling very unwell, then staying home may be the right decision.
Don’t judge yourself for taking the day, after all, would you judge someone who couldn't come to work due to a migraine? Probably not. Sick days are not just for people with contagious illnesses, they're there so employees can look after their health.
If you're in pain or are experiencing mild symptoms, you can try taking IBS medications or even a hot water bottle with you to work (if you happen to have a desk job) to soothe your symptoms. However, if you've been up all night and still can't pull yourself away from the bathroom, then it might be a good idea to stay put.
Calling in sick to work with diarrhea might sound embarrassing, but if you're experiencing a bad flare-up, then you're within your rights to decide to stay home.
If you're thinking of calling in sick due to fear of a flare-up, then you may want to consider new ways to manage your symptoms, so that they don't interfere with your work schedule.
How to relieve work IBS anxiety
Since anxiety and IBS are closely linked, your work situation can present a vicious circle. For example, when the bathroom is all you can think about, you might feel too anxious to go to work. However, calling in sick can increase your anxiety, making your symptoms worse.
Research shows that hypnotherapy, psychotherapy, and different relaxation techniques may help you manage anxiety and negative thoughts. Some IBS hypnotherapy apps, like Nerva, are designed to soothe the mind and the gut, so you can learn to manage your IBS anxiety and IBS symptoms at the same time.
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If your anxiety about having a flare-up at work is overwhelming you, taking time to address and deconstruct negative thoughts, like "everyone's judging me for leaving early" or "I won't get a promotion because my IBS is holding me back", can help get you and your mindset back on track.
What can employers do?
The employer should look for ways to support workers who have IBS. They might find it uncomfortable to talk about the condition; however, a good conversation is often the best start.
The employer can:
- Offer flexible working hours
- Discuss work from home options, if possible
- Provide easy access to toilets
- Allow regular work and toilet breaks
- Provide employees with IBS access to a quiet place to relax
Working with IBS can be difficult, embarrassing, or even guilt-ridden for some people, but it doesn't have to be. With the right treatments, proper planning, and open conversations, you can maintain a positive work-life balance and pursue your career. Often, it's a good idea to speak to your employer first, as this can lessen IBS work anxiety and make space for strategies that support you and your workplace. If your symptoms are regularly getting in the way of your work, then you may want to speak to your doctor about IBS treatment options.