Managing IBS at work: for sufferers and their employers

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is an extremely common and yet barely spoken about health condition that can affect all areas of a person's life, from their daily moods and routines, to their ability to perform at work.

Despite its prevalence (two in 10 of us have it) and its economic burden (the total cost of sick leave for gut problems in the UK is £3 billion per year), there's still a wall of silence and uncertainty surrounding this mysterious condition.

This is partly because the disorder is related to our digestive habits, a subject that can be embarrassing to talk about, and partly because it's a difficult disorder to define. IBS has no pathology, no specific cause, cure or even an established way of being diagnosed.

What's it like to experience IBS?

IBS is not the same for everyone but sufferers typically experience chronic abdominal pain, bloating and unpredictable bowel movements. Some people are more prone to constipation, some diarrhoea, while others get a lucky dip. Symptoms can come and go, and secondary problems such as anxiety and depression can come about as a result of feeling isolated by or worried about IBS.

Not only can IBS be extremely frustrating to deal with in the workplace, it can also be hard to talk about. Most health problems are tricky to talk about at work. It's a very personal subject and having something wrong with us, whether physical or mental, can make us feel vulnerable. IBS carries a particular stigma. It's much easier to blame illness on a cold or virus than the intimate workings of your digestive system - but if it's affecting you badly at work, it might be time to talk about it.

What if IBS is affecting your work?

If IBS is affecting your performance at work, it's important to discuss possible solutions with HR or your manager. You might worry that you're over-sharing, you might worry you're not going to be taken seriously. You might worry about what kind of language to use, or if you're going to be laughed out of the room. Or you might, like most people with IBS, decide it's a whole lot easier just to pretend everything's okay.

In support of IBS Awareness Month (April 2020) we want to get IBS out in the open. To help sufferers and their managers find a solution, we've produced a poster offering advice on managing IBS symptoms at work.

If your IBS affects your day-to-day abilities, it might be considered a disability under the Equality Act 2010. This means that your employer would have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to help you do your job properly.

You can find out more about reasonable adjustments on the Enablement section of our website.

Even if your IBS is not deemed to be a disability, there are many simple steps your employer can take to help you do your job. These are all features on our poster, which you can download by clicking on the image below. Visit our wellbeing consulting page if you are interested in booking a bespoke wellbeing day for your organisation.

If you would like to find out more about what active working is and how you can start, go ahead and visit our active working page.

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