IBS at Work: How to Work When You've Got to Go

July 31, 2019

Woman holding belly because of a stomach ache
Erin Ollila

If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you may feel as if you are suffering alone — but you're not. The International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) reports there are 25 to 45 million Americans just like you. Struggling with IBS at work, and the gastrointestinal pain and intense urge to use the bathroom that comes along with it, causes undue anxiety and stress.

Will you be able to get to the bathroom in time? Where can you go for privacy when you feel as if you're doubling over in pain? Will a flare up keep you out of work again this year?

As much as you'd like to, you can't snap your fingers and make your condition suddenly disappear while at work. Instead, learn about what you can do to make your job easier. There are more options than you might think!

What Is Living With IBS Like?

IBS is an unpredictable condition that can flare up without warning; for those living with IBS, that means being constantly prepared for intense bloating, bathroom emergencies, and painful constipation and diarrhea — to name a few symptoms.

If you've been living with irritable bowel syndrome for some time, this description may sound all too familiar to you. Day-long trainings, meetings and even after-work get-togethers feel nearly impossible, so you find yourself missing out on important learnings or invaluable time spent with your colleagues. It's embarrassing, and it impinges upon your life.

Strategies to Manage IBS at Work

Unfortunately, there's no easy trick to dealing with IBS at work. However, there are some things you can do to try to manage your condition as a working professional — specifically, eating small, healthy meals, drinking plenty of water, keeping to a schedule and managing your stress levels.

First, explore your diet with your doctor or nutritionist. Some of the foods you consume may be making your condition worse during your working hours. In addition, eating smaller meals will help with any gastrocolic reflex or constipation issues you're experiencing.

Your schedule is the next step to tackle. Getting enough rest and creating spaces in your day to use the bathroom will significantly help with managing your overall life with IBS. At work, schedule your small meals and beverages throughout the day, but be careful to look at your daily appointments and avoid eating right before important meetings, which could upset your condition.

Finally, stress management plays a huge role in creating a healthy life and managing IBS. While stress isn't the cause of IBS, it's vital to manage it. IFFGD says "because of the connection between the brain and the gut, stress can worsen or trigger symptoms."

Can HR Help?

If you suffer with IBS at work, there's no need to struggle alone. You have the right to request accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), so long as the company you work for has more than 15 employees.

To do so, meet with HR and ask for accommodations that would suit your specific needs. Know that HR can request medical documentation of your condition. It is also recommended that you work together to determine which accommodations will work for both you and your company, like moving your workstation closer to the bathrooms, or having permission to request a modified schedule if you're experiencing a flare up.

While it isn't necessary to tell your direct supervisor — and don't worry, HR cannot disclose your medical condition to them — if you work for someone who is empathetic and kind, it might be helpful to clue them in on your condition, too. You wouldn't want them thinking your taking advantage of breaks because of your many trips to the bathroom or PTO if you're calling out sick quite often. When they know that you are legitimately experiencing a medical condition, they'll be a lot more understanding about the little stuff like time away from your desk.

Sign Up to Receive Our Newsletter & Get the Best Ergonomic Tips