Employment and Work with IBS

Article by Sian

Any-one who has to live and work with IBS, and hold down a job will soon come to realize that it’s both embarrassing and can anger their bosses, who may consider their using the restroom frequently to be ‘ slacking ‘.

The problem is, the more worried we become about needing bathroom breaks, the more often we are likely to need them. It is also sometimes all the more embarrassing because we do not wish to be in a public restroom for all to hear.

My first IBS attack at work
My first attack of IBS pain was at work, and although the woman who found me said I looked ‘ awful ‘ and ‘ white as a sheet ‘, and I was given a lift home, it was the fact that I was absent which remained in the minds of my employers.

We may be fortunate enough to work with IBS in places where frequent trips to the bathrooms are not remarked on. In some situations, however, it would seem that any time away from our workstation is held against us, a form of absenteeism.

Having done a lot of reception work which involves being the first point of contact in a company, being away from my desk was accepted as necessary, but something which should be infrequent and of short duration.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome, however, takes no account of our employers.


Women are allowed a certain amount of leeway, due to their menstrual cycle, but even then, I have worked in places where a pointed stare was directed at me if I was away from my seat for too long. This annoyed me, as I could not help it.

In some jobs I was told to tell some-one when I was away from my desk, which was company policy. This type of work with IBS caused me great stress.

All I could say was that I had a bad stomach. People occasionally joked, saying, ‘ Have you had a curry? ‘ or ‘ Were you out on the drink last night? ‘ The answer to both questions was ‘ No, ‘ but even not so long ago IBS was unheard of by the great majority of people.

The one time I had to admit to the recruitment agency that I suffered it, after leaving work with an acute attack, they decided I was unreliable and I was taken from their books.

While some people understood that I had a bad stomach most of the time, it was usually not the people responsible for paying my wages. In one company, where I had asked twice within an hour for some-one to cover answering the phone for me, and had been in the restroom over ten minutes each time, the woman I had spoken to told me quietly, that my manager was displeased by my absence as I was on reception. I should be in reception all the time save in my lunch hour. I used to become upset and furious, which made my IBS attacks more frequent and painful. One company owners glossily perfect secretary suggested loudly that I should bring in my own toilet tissue. I could have curled up and died.

I was surprised and disheartened by the lack of understanding while having to work with IBS. I understood what my job was, ( any of them ) and worked hard, with frequent overtime and Saturdays when required, but few people understood the demands of what it took to work with IBS.

Should we admit to our immediate superiors we have IBS?
IBS is more widely recognized now, and so my answer to that would be, ‘ I would. ‘

If I have to go to the dentist, doctors, or to the Dept of Work and Pensions regarding my benefits, I will state that I suffer from IBS and may need an accessible bathroom. I have absolutely no embarrassment in explaining to them what IBS is and what one suffers with it.

The Disability Discrimination Act (U.K) And the Americans with Disabilities Act (U.S.A. )
It is worth remembering that the Disability Discrimination Act in the United Kingdom states that it is unlawful to discriminate against disabled people with regards to employment. If you work with IBS, you should be covered by the act.

To quote from the Act, a disability is classified as, ‘A physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his/her capability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’.

A physical impairment can include chronic abdominal pain, and continence is also listed among other recognized impairments such as eyesight, hearing and physical mobility. Long-term is defined as something which has lasted for 12 months and is likely to last as long again, or for all of one’s life.

A mental impairment can include a clinically recognized illness such as depression which long-term IBS sufferers are often afflicted with.

The Americans with Disabilities Act , a federal law established in 1991 likewise makes it unlawful to discriminate against workers with disabilities. It covers virtually all physical and mental disabilities. Since I have heard of several cases over the years where a US employee has lost their job due to IBS, I hope that more Americans will look into ADA, and know their rights and what they can do if they are being treated unfairly.

Your employer has an obligation to try and make your work environment as friendly as possible and may not discriminate against your condition.

In the UK, if you feel you have been discriminated against, or that your employers have deliberately made your job untenable, then you have a right to raise a claim against them within three months of leaving your job. Your case will be heard by an employment tribunal and it will be necessary for them to know your medical history.

There are some employers who are unaware of the DDA, and no doubt the ADA in the USA, but any-one suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome at work should ( politely ) make their employers aware of it. As legal self help, (UK readers), the DDA 1995 and 2005 can be fully read and printed out from the Office of Public Sector information (OPSI) website.
Mutual understanding and cooperation?
There is no need to appear an agitator in your requests to your employer. Many people in the UK have successfully claimed up to and over £25,000 compensation from an employment tribunal, and most employers would far rather work with their employees than be taken before a tribunal.

You can suggest several things that might help you work with IBS, such as having your workstation closer to a bathroom, flexi-time, to avoid having to work during those times when IBS is more severe, such as the mornings, and more toilet facilities.

You could ask your employer to altering your role somewhat to make it unnecessary for you to attend long meetings. There are certain things an employer really cannot do, such as moving their business closer to where you live, and some people find that commuting to and from their workplace is the most stressful part of their day when they work with IBS, especially in the rush-hour, where one may be stuck in traffic.

I used to leave for work an hour earlier than was necessary to avoid this, and also work late, although an employer may be willing to alter the hours a little.

The relationship of employer and employee is a two way street. If you work and suffer with IBS and speak to your immediate superior openly and honestly, then you will have done your part.

Your employer may not realize why you need frequent bathroom breaks, or are likely to be off sick, and will not know until you tell them.

I know that speaking of IBS even to a doctor is something that some people cannot do, in which case, perhaps an email or letter to your supervisor/manager is a way of explaining to them. Some will be more than willing to help and accommodate you.

Unfortunately there do seem to be many who are unsympathetic, it has happened in my case and to other people’s. But your responsibility lies in informing them of your IBS and theirs in helping you work through it and with it.

Awareness of IBS does appear to be growing, but there will always be people who simply want their ‘ pound of flesh ‘ and will have no interest in their employees condition, or that they work with IBS, only their reliability and productivity.

It is to be hoped that raised awareness and law will eventually make it impossible to dismiss an employee for suffering a recognized medical condition, and that those who do will be made to pay compensation.