Tool Kit for Educating your Employer about Your Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

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Unrestricted educational grant from Nestle Health Science, makers of IBgard.

If you suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), you know that when your symptoms flare up, they can be incapacitating. Getting ready for work in the morning can seem like an impossible task. 

People who suffer from IBS may have four to five bowel movements before leaving the house in the morning (MD). This can continue throughout the day, accompanied by debilitating abdominal pain. Extreme bloating and abdominal pain can be distracting and effect performance and productivity. The continuous need to use the bathroom can disrupt meetings or make you late for work. 

Due to the nature of the condition, people who suffer from IBS often feel isolated, alone, and embarrassed. There is a stigma that comes along with gastrointestinal issues like IBS. Because many symptoms are invisible, it is often difficult for employers and colleagues to understand why you might sometimes be absent or late, or need to spend so much time in the bathroom.

This can often be chalked up to a lack of understanding on the debilitating nature of the condition, and can be rectified by opening up the lines of communication between patient and employer.

Having this conversation may not be easy, however, it is necessary to ensure that you educate your employer on your condition. To help you do this, we have put together a tool kit to help you facilitate this discussion and give your employer the facts they need to ensure you have what you need at work to be productive.

Most importantly, here are a few things to keep in mind while dealing with IBS at work, before you speak to your employer.

How do I deal with IBS at work?

  • Make time for yourself in the morning. Get up a little earlier to allow for a bowel movement or two without feeling pressed for time.
  • Tell someone at work. Keep your boss in the loop – it’ll make your life much easier down the road. We’ve outlined the best way to do this below.
  • Limit long meetings (or at least make sure those in attendance know why you may need to rush out of the room at a certain point).
  • Ask your employer about working remotely. This will allow you the freedom to work on your own schedule with little breaks if needed.
  • If you have a close work friend, ask them if they will support you when you’re in a flare.
  • Work with a dietician to try to determine which foods cause a flare, and avoid these while at work.
  • Work on stress-management techniques to help keep your IBS under control.
  • Consider hosting a lunch and learn on digestive diseases to educate staff.
irritable bowel syndrome

First – make sure that they know that you suffer from IBS

If you haven’t already notified you employer, make sure you tell them that you have been diagnosed with IBS, and give them a brief description about what that is, if they are not already familiar with the disorder. Set a meeting specifically for this conversation, so you know that your employer has your full attention.

Example: 

Thank you for taking the time to meet with me today. I scheduled this meeting because I wanted to inform you that I suffer from a condition called irritable bowel syndrome (commonly referred to as IBS.) 

Irritable bowel syndrome is a chronic gastrointestinal disorder that comes with debilitating symptoms that are often out of my control. When I am experiencing a flare at work, I may need to take long bathroom breaks, and sometimes in the mornings, the pain and urgency can hold me up. I want to work and give you the best of myself, so your patience and understanding when I’m experiencing flares is extremely appreciated.’  

Next – hit them with some IBS facts

Approach this conversation professionally and clinically. Let them know that you have done your research and highlight some important statistics and facts to let them know a little bit more about your condition. Showing statistical evidence about the disorder will help to reinforce their understanding that your absence from work is not due to laziness, but due to a legitimate medical disorder. 

Example:

  • The most common symptoms of IBS are abdominal pain and irregular bowel patterns that result in constipation, diarrhea, or alternating periods of both. These symptoms can be unpredictable, so I may need to excuse myself periodically until the flare up settles down.  (Canadian Digestive Health Foundation, 2016)
  • Canada has one of the highest incidence and prevalence rates of IBS in the world (Lovell et al. 2012). 
  • More than 70% indicate that their symptoms interfere with everyday life and 46% report missing work or school due to IBS. (Gastrointestinal Society 2018) 
  • A patient with IBS misses an average of 13 work days a year due to symptoms outside of their control. (Gastrointestinal Society 2018)
  • IBS flareups are closely related to food. This makes it difficult for IBS patients to participate in social or professional activities and events that involve meals. (Gastrointestinal Society 2018)
  • The prevailing cause of IBS is unknown, and it has very few effective treatment options. People who suffer from IBS must often experiment with different over the counter medications and different dietary restrictions to reduce symptom flares. (Canadian Digestive Health Foundation, 2016)
educating your employer about IBS - make a game plan

And finally – propose some solutions to help you navigate your work environment with IBS

 It is not your fault that you have IBS, and your struggles may not seem fair. However, the best way to approach any conversation with any employer, is not to present them with problems, but to offer them some potential solutions. 

Example:

IBS Problem:

Frequent need for bathroom breaks

Workplace Solution:

Inform those in the office you feel comfortable sharing with that you suffer from a medical condition that requires you to have unlimited access to a bathroom. Offer to educate colleagues on what IBS is to avoid accusations and stigmatization. In situations (like meetings) where a bathroom break may seem inappropriate, colleagues will be more understanding if they understand why you might need to suddenly excuse yourself.

IBS Problem:

Potential for frequent absences due to illness

Workplace Solution:

If at all possible, allow you to work from home on the days that you are not feeling well enough to come to work. This way, your work will still be completed, but you will not be required to travel on days where straying far from a bathroom seems out of reach. 

IBS Problem:

Tardiness

Workplace Solution:

On days where you are held up in the mornings, try to work out a plan with your employer on how you can make up the time missed. Maybe they means working through lunch or staying a little bit later on days that you are feeling your best. Your employer will appreciate the offer and see that you are trying your best to pull your weight despite the (quite literally) crappy hand that you have been dealt. 

IBS Problem:

Dealing with extended periods of pain at work

Workplace Solution:

Keep a care package on you with any over the counter medications that may help relieve IBS related pain. For example, peppermint can relax muscle, eases hypersensitivity in the bowels, and modulate pain in IBS. IBgard is a clinically tested capsule filled with tiny beads of peppermint oil, using a technology called SST (Site Specific Targeting). Learn more about this CDHF Certified product here.

As always, consult a physician before trying any new medications. 


References:

Canadian Digestive Health Foundation. 2015. Understanding Irritable Bowel Syndrome. http://cdhf.ca/bank/document_en/15understanding-irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs-.pdf#zoom=100

Gastrointestinal Society. 2018. IBS Global Impact Report 2018. https://badgut-5q10xayth7t3zjokbv.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/IBS-Global-Impact-Report.pdf[accessed 3 September 2018]

Lovell RM and Ford AC. Global prevalence of and risk factors for irritable bowel syndrome: A meta-analysis. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2012 Jul;10(7):712-21.e4. 

Web MD. Dealing With IBS at Work: Strategies for Coping. (n.d.). Retrieved February 19, 2019, from https://www.webmd.com/ibs/guide/dealing-ibs-at-work#1