A 6-Step Survival Guide to Working With IBS

It can be challenging to deal with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and work. When an average person wakes up with severe abdominal pain and cramping, they call in sick without giving it a second thought. When these symptoms occur chronically, such as with IBS, calling in sick may no longer be a simple option. 


Tell the Right People

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Once you get to work, things can be just as challenging. Few jobs offer the luxury of uninterrupted private access to a bathroom. Many jobs require sitting in meetings. Some jobs require travel. All of these activities that people without IBS take for granted can be minefields of stress for those with unreliable digestive systems.

Keeping your IBS a secret may end up being so stressful that it actually makes your symptoms worse. The key to telling others about your IBS is to choose the person you confide in wisely. If your company offers confidential counseling through an employee assistance program (EAP) or human resources department, make an appointment to find out what work modifications may be available to you. 

Depending on their trustworthiness, consider telling your immediate supervisor about your IBS. This may help your boss to be more understanding of your need to take sick time or your reluctance to take on stressful responsibilities, such as those that involve travel or public speaking. Similarly, make a careful choice and confide in trustworthy co-workers. If they know what you are dealing with, they may be willing to cover your responsibilities should you need to take a break or use the restroom for an extended period of time.


Ask for Flexibility

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While it is true that most jobs are fairly inflexible when it comes to accommodating employees' personal needs, it is important to gauge the level of safety you have at your place of work before asking. You may not always have to disclose your condition while speaking with your boss about adjusting your schedule in a way that would put less stress on your digestive system.

With the wonders of modern technology, perhaps the company would be willing to let you work from home on the days that your IBS flare-up is more severe. Another option is to ask for a later shift, as IBS symptoms are often worse in the morning.

You do have rights (under the Americans with Disabilities Act) to ask for accommodations that will help you manage your symptoms and your job. A more extreme option is to look for a different job—one that offers more flexibility or is better suited for your body. Consider going freelance, allowing you to work from home, if possible in your field.


Maintain a Regular Schedule

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Your reality is that you have a digestive system that is highly reactive. This means that you have to treat it with kid gloves. Make sure you maintain regular sleep and eating habits, aiming for regularly timed, small meals to avoid strengthening the gastrocolic reflex which can lead to stronger abdominal cramps.

If constipation is your predominant symptom, allow time every morning for a relaxed trip to the bathroom, even if this means you have to get up a little earlier. If diarrhea is your predominant symptom, you will be glad for that extra time!


Stay on Top of Your Work

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One of the major contributors to IBS symptoms is stress. Don’t fall into the procrastination trap.

Deadlines can be very stressful. Make sure to utilize good time management skills and map out a plan to get your work done in a timely, relaxed manner. This way you are not stressing out your system any more than it already is.


Try to Stay Relaxed

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The most important tool in your IBS arsenal is the development of relaxation skills. Using such skills on a regular basis reduces your overall stress level and provides you with a means of counteracting the stress response that may be triggered by a high-pressure meeting or the need to give a presentation.


Inquire About Disability Benefits

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Disability should be seen as a last resort, as it is generally better for a person's mental health to be engaged in meaningful employment. However, for severe cases of IBS, temporary or permanent disability may become a necessity.

If you have access to a human resources department, make an appointment. They are generally well-trained in helping people understand their options and navigate their way through the process.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Phillips-moore JS, Talley NJ, Jones MP. The mind-body connection in irritable bowel syndrome: A randomised controlled trial of hypnotherapy as a treatment. Health Psychol Open. 2015;2(1):2055102914564583. doi:10.1177/2055102914564583