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Real Talk: How to Handle GI Issues at Work

Image of Real Talk: How to Handle GI Issues at Work
Image of Real Talk: How to Handle GI Issues at Work

If you struggle with GI issues, you know that dealing with your symptoms can feel like a full-time job. Not only is there the ongoing discomfort of the symptoms themselves, but also the constant effort of managing them: remembering to take all your medications and supplements, drinking enough water, eating certain foods and avoiding others, going to medical appointments. The list goes on.

When you have an actual job to do in the midst of it all, it can feel impossible to strike a balance. What do you do if you have diarrhea the day of an important presentation? Should you suck it up and hope for the best, or ask your boss to reschedule, despite knowing it could easily happen again?

Or what about those co-workers who keep hounding you to drink at every happy hour? Is there a graceful way to turn them down without having to talk about your bowel habits? Do you even owe them an explanation?

Questions like these can seem endless, and there isn’t exactly a playbook for how to answer them.

Rest assured, you’re not alone in dealing with the challenges of GI issues at work. Research shows that nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults are affected by GI symptoms. Luckily, there’s a lot to learn from individuals who have figured it out the hard way: through experience. Evens spoke to three of them about their unique challenges navigating GI issues at work—and how they’ve learned to cope. Here are their tips.

Talking to your boss about your GI issues

There’s a stigma attached to GI issues, as most of us were brought up to think of “poop talk” as gross or embarrassing. At work, you might fear that telling your boss about your symptoms is “inappropriate” or “too personal”—or that they won’t believe you.

Feeling nervous about conversations like these is totally understandable, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have them. Remember: Telling your boss that you suffer from a GI condition will give them insight into your experience, and help them address your needs so you can do your best work.

Cassie*, 27, who has irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and works as a research scientist at a pharmaceutical company, recommends a “firm but vague” approach to initiating these conversations. “Set a meeting to be very honest with your manager. You don’t have to go into detail, but let them know in advance that you have stomach trouble that occasionally requires going home. Establishing that line of communication ahead of time is really helpful.”

In other words, there’s no need to disclose intimate details about your symptoms to your boss. But it will be helpful for both of you in the long-run to have a dedicated meeting to get on the same page about how your symptoms might affect your work, and what accommodations you might need.

For example, you could say: “Sometimes, when I have a flare-up, I might need to go home or come in late. Can we arrange for a more flexible schedule on those days?” By giving your boss a heads up, you’ll set the stage to have easier, quicker conversations when it actually comes time to an episode.

You may also want to consider educating your manager about the name of your condition, or common symptoms: “I set up this meeting because I wanted to let you know that I have a condition called irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, which has various GI symptoms that can be hard to control.” After all, visibility is key to reducing the stigma—but it’s definitely not your responsibility nor is it necessary.

Talking to colleagues about your symptoms

Another common hurdle for GI sufferers at work is figuring out how to be honest with colleagues, especially at social events when navigating food and drinks that are likely to disagree with your digestion.

“There have been many times I’ve had to turn down food and snacks brought in by my boss because I know they’ll cause GI issues for me. It always feels awkward when everyone asks why I’m not eating with them,” shares Madison, 24, who also has IBS and works as a manager at a trampoline park.

There are various ways to deal with the (very common) awkwardness Madison points out. You can adopt Cassie’s “firm but vague” approach, and say something like, “I deal with stomach trouble and can’t eat that.” If you don’t feel like explaining your eating habits at all, you don’t owe it to anyone. “You don't need to give everyone a dissertation about why you can't have certain things,” Cassie says. “If someone is particularly pushy, I tend to act like I'm a very picky eater and just tell them I don't like a lot of foods. That's hard to argue with,” she adds.

Kayvon, 24, who has ulcerative colitis and is co-founder of a probiotic tea company, likes to keep things “a little more private.” He explains: “At work events, I used to eat a little bit beforehand, and then nibble at the event so I didn’t feel like an outcast. If someone asked, ‘Why aren't you eating?’ I would say something like ‘I ate beforehand.’” Ideally, Kayvon says, people with GI issues shouldn’t have to deal with the stress of having to explain their food choices, which are stressful enough on their own. Kayvon’s advice for curious coworkers? “If somebody isn’t eating something or not drinking alcohol, respect their choices and don't ask questions.”

Of course, deciding how much of your GI issues to share with your colleagues is a deeply personal choice, and depends on the particular relationships you have. Kayvon added: “I won’t initiate the conversation by going up to someone and saying, ‘Hi, I’m Kayvon and I have GI issues,’ but I will share If someone is willing to listen, or is genuinely asking.”

Tips for managing symptoms at work

Beyond the challenge of communicating about your GI symptoms, there’s still the challenge of managing the symptoms themselves.

“I have a water bottle that goes with me everywhere, and I always pack snacks that I know make me feel better,” shares Cassie.

Make sure you also keep any medications or supplements on hand—whether at your desk or in your bag, and set reminders on your phone if you need to. (This might be something to address with your boss or colleagues, especially if your treatment schedule or certain appointments regularly interfere with meetings).

Given the connection between stress and GI health, prioritizing your mental health is also critical for managing your symptoms, at work and beyond. This is easier said than done, and certainly there’s no single approach that’s “right” for everyone. Maybe you schedule breaks during the day to breathe or go for a walk. Other proven stress-busters include staying active, planning fun activities for your free time, or reaching out for support from friends, family or a therapist. At the very least, try to identify your stressors and come up with a few tried-and-true ways to unwind and relax throughout each week in a way that works for you. There’s a reason they call the gut your second brain.

How employers can support people with GI issues

While it’s critical for managers and colleagues to offer their understanding and support to individuals with GI symptoms, the real goal is having workplaces that are more accommodating to begin with.

“I wish managers better understood the physical toll GI symptoms can take on a person,” says Madison. “I have experienced people asking things like, ‘Do you have to go to the bathroom now? Why can’t you hold it?’ GI symptoms can be quite severe at times for many people.”

Acknowledging the severity of GI issues would ideally lead to more flexible policies and benefits for people with GI conditions, without putting the responsibility on individuals for educating their managers. Having the option to work from home, for example, could be a huge help: “I think the pandemic has shifted work in favor of people with GI issues,” notes Kayvon. “Working from home has been a huge help for me. I can navigate around when I need to use the restroom. Going into an office or traveling brings up a bit of anxiety, especially when you're with other people, when you might not be in control of the situation.”

While dealing with GI issues at work can sometimes feel like a battle between your needs and those of your job, remember that your health is the foundation of everything you do. When you feel good, you’re more creative, collaborative, engaged, and productive. Let this motivate you to prioritize your health on the job. Listen to your gut. Sometimes, it really is that simple.

The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

Photo by David Sherry via Death to Stock