10 patient-backed tips for dealing with IBD at work

By Caitlyn Pilkington Smith, Guest Contributor

Life with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a challenge for many—the uncertainty, embarrassment, and fear can feel crippling when symptoms flare up. And when patients have jobs that require time in an office, it can be an added layer of anxiety. Do you disclose your IBD to your boss? What if you have to use the bathroom in the middle of a presentation? Or worse, what if you don’t make it?

I’ve had ulcerative colitis since I was 14 years old, so I’ve dealt with this pretty much the entire time I’ve been working. Sometimes it worked well, sometimes it did not. I had one boss who declined to let me use the bathroom during a huge book launch. I ignored her and went anyway; thankfully, a much nicer supervisor had my back.

As a result of that experience and many others, I picked up some tips on how to deal with IBD at work.

1. Be totally transparent with your supervisor if you want

In my experience, most bosses are very receptive and appreciate the honesty. Disclosing your condition and the things you require—like unlimited bathroom access—minimizes the quizzical looks or doubts that might come up. It also establishes a healthy working relationship that you can lean on later, should you become sick and have to stay home. Kelly Propst, 35, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and fellow colitis patient agrees: “I am very open about my IBD at work.”

However, this is totally your choice—and you might decide it’s not in your best interest to not disclose your condition to your boss. You know your employer best, so follow your instincts.

2. Know the bathrooms

This one’s a no-brainer, but make sure you know where each accessible bathroom is in your building.

3. Come to work prepared

Sarah Cansler, 28, from Raleigh, North Carolina, has ulcerative colitis and says she brings three things to work: baby wipes, Lysol spray, and an extra pair of underwear. Figure out your work essentials—and then store them at your desk.

4. Plan your lunches

Have a packed meeting schedule? Plan an appropriate amount of time—for me, it’s about 1 hour—to eat before a meeting. This allows you space to try and use the bathroom before it starts.

5. Get friendly with the stairs

Our bathrooms are currently under construction, and the last thing I want is a broken elevator as I’m heading down to use the first-floor facilities. Take the stairs if you can.

6. Trust your colleagues

Even if you don’t feel 100% comfortable sharing openly about your IBD, trust that they will not judge you if you take that fourth bathroom trip. Honestly, most people hardly notice when you’re up and back multiple times. A lot of my IBD-related anxiety is in my head; I notice that I’m going a lot, so I think everyone else does too.

7. Give yourself grace

Feeling off today? Stay home! That conversation you already had with your boss has clued them in. If your job offers work-from-home perks, all the better—use them.

8. Understand your health benefit plan

Are you contributing to an HSA, or Health Savings Account? Are colonoscopies covered? What’s your deductible? Is your gastroenterologist in-network? Does your company offer benefits? These are all great questions to ask human resources, so you can be mentally and financially prepared, should you need a checkup.

9. Practice meditation

Joseph Morstad, a 38-year-old ulcerative colitis patient from San Diego, California and author of 52 Habits to Help You Feel, Eat & Move Better with IBD, says this reminds you to “take a healthy break during the work day.” There are many guided meditations you can find that offer short sessions. “Bonus IBD points, combine the short meditation while you’re in the bathroom. It’ll be more rewarding than scrolling through Instagram.” (Don’t lie, we all scroll while we sit.)

10. Don’t alienate yourself

Even if you do not disclose your IBD to every single person you work with, establishing healthy working relationships can still be beneficial to patients. Inflammatory bowel disease can already feel isolating. Trusting your colleagues can, in turn, make it a bit easier to casually step out for a bathroom break in the middle of group activities.

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