How to deal with the anxiety of having IBS in the workplace


by Bianca Barratt

How to deal with the anxiety of having IBS in the workplace

Living with Irritable Bowel Syndrome can be difficult - particularly when it comes to considering the anxiety, pain and embarrassment that often accompany it. Your professional life can take a huge hit - particularly when flare ups begin to have an affect on your work output or ability to apply your best self. Anxiety and IBS can often feel like they work in a vicious circle. When IBS flares up, the idea of concentrating or even going into the office can feel impossible, but the worry that you’ll jeopardise your job by not doing so can just exacerbate the problem further. This doesn’t have to be the way, though. There are options for dealing with the anxiety that both stems from and aggravates Irritable Bowel Syndrome – having the right tools to tackle it should go some way to helping manage some of your symptoms.

Though the causes of Irritable Bowel Syndrome can be multifaceted and vary from one patient to another, many people can pinpoint it to a time in their lives that was particularly taxing on the digestive system. A long dose of antibiotics, a bout of food poisoning or abdominal surgery have all been identified as a catalyst and even anxiety and stress have been noted as causes. Affecting the digestive system, IBS can commonly cause cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, constipation or diarrhoea and often a combination of several of these symptoms – hardly a recipe for a great day at work. 

Between the need to be near a bathroom and the concentration-sapping discomfort, it can really get in the way of your productivity, though, for many, the idea of speaking to their boss about it seems mortifying. But when you take into consideration that 5 million adults in the UK and 1 in 7 of the world’s population is dealing with the syndrome at any one time, it’s a lot more common than many people realise. Yet, according to a 2018 survey, around 48% of British adults put off going to the GP when they think they have IBS because of the embarrassment they feel at admitting the symptoms. 

Interestingly, research undertaken in Japan showed that, thanks to the well-documented gut-brain link, IBS may actually be causing mental health difficulties – something that can make the concept of getting through the working day or contacting a doctor even more daunting. The study found a considerable link between IBS and anxiety, with results showing that those dealing with IBS were significantly more likely to also develop mental health disorders. Evidence suggests that, rather than the worry, stress and anxiety being about IBS, it could actually be a side effect of it.

The truth is, IBS doesn’t have to rule – or ruin – your work life. Learning to lessen the symptoms and make working life as easy as possible will help you manage its effects in the long run. Here are some of the things you can do to lessen the anxiety of dealing with IBS in the workplace.

Talk about it

Though it might be the last thing you want to do, the IBS Network recommends speaking to a manager or HR about the condition. Keeping it a secret could be adding to your stress – which could only serve to exacerbate the symptoms further. Though you might be worried that informing your employer of your condition will make them think of you as ‘less able,’ under the Equality Act 2010, they have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to aid you and will likely appreciate your honesty far more than your determination to appear ‘fine’ even when you aren’t. This is a case of ‘don’t ask, don’t get’ so informing your employer actually gives them the opportunity to make the adjustments you need, whereas keeping it quiet will get you nowhere. If it seems too embarrassing to speak to your boss, make an appointment with HR, whose job it is to support employees and their needs. Whether it’s flexible working hours, working from home days or access to a private bathroom that you need, there’s a variety of ways in which they can help set you up for success.

Keeping symptoms at bay

Many IBS sufferers have dietary triggers, so taking this into consideration and planning your food for the working day is a must. Research suggests that a diet low in fermentable carbohydrates (known as the low FODMAP diet) can help to manage the symptoms - it’s a very restrictive diet which should only be taken on with the support of a dietitian or registered nutritional therapist, so talk to your GP about a referral if you’ve tried other dietary interventions and not had any joy. 

Get ahead and ensure you give yourself plenty of time in the mornings to eat a healthy breakfast and go to the bathroom before work, and rather than reach for the heavily caffeinated drink you might be craving, opt for a gut-boosting supplement or probiotic-rich drink such as kombucha instead. A calm set up to the day will ensure you feel ready to deal with work and may help lessen the feelings of anxiety that can aggravate the condition. 

Rather than relying on the office canteen, another sensible tactic is to prepare your own lunches ahead, giving you more control over the ingredients you’re ingesting and allowing you to keep the portions to the optimum size. 

Though you may not need convincing to take a decent lunch break, many of us can find ourselves still glued to our screens and attempting not to spill soup over the keyboard at lunchtime. Instead of falling into that trap, take the opportunity to get away from your desk, get active and take time to eat your food mindfully. Not only can this help you avoid feelings of indigestion, the added exercise has been known to help beat stress and lower the risk of constipation, too.

When you feel a flare up coming on

If you’ve eaten mindfully, taken exercise and avoided caffeine but still feel a flare-up coming on, it’s important to try to remain as calm as possible and seek out a quiet spot if you can. Certain herbal teas, such as peppermint, ginger, chamomile and black tea are also known to help soothe cramps and pains, as well as your nerves. In these moments, finding access to a calm environment should be a top priority. Most importantly, speaking to a senior at work will ensure you have access to all of this as and when you need it, without appearing as if you’re slacking off. 

IBS doesn’t have to restrict your career and speaking to your employer to lessen the anxiety of dealing with it in the workplace is one of the best things you can do for yourself. From flexible hours to having quiet spaces to relax and deal with symptoms, there are several steps you can take to set yourself up for success. 

If you have the condition or suspect you may have it, we recommend contacting your GP for further advice. 

Post author

Bianca Barratt

Bianca Barratt is a freelance journalist specialising in lifestyle, culture and business features. She has written for titles including the Evening Standard, Independent, The Sunday Times, Refinery 29, Euronews, Sheerluxe and Forbes.com.