How to Cope With Your IBD at Work

Plan for surprises, talk to your employer

Woman in bathroom during work hours

When you have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), you can have some rough seas to navigate at work. You may be dealing with diarrhea, bowel urgency, stomach pain and anemia — symptoms that often don’t mesh well with a long day on the job.

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Of course, the goal is remission so you can live, work and play symptom-free. But for the nearly 2 million Americans with IBD, most commonly Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, that is not always possible.

But the good news is that if you plan well, you often can prevail in your job and limit the effect of IBD. Here are four tips from gastroenterologist Jessica Philpott, MD, PhD.

1. Consider what is important to disclose

Let’s say you’re in the process of looking for a job. It’s important to understand your needs. Ask yourself: How will this condition and symptoms affect my working hours?

“If you happen to have frequent bowel habits, you might not want to get a job as a flight attendant,” Dr. Philpott says. “Knowing your body and trying to find a job that fits your body’s schedule is good.”

Should you tell a potential employer about the condition? You’re not required to disclose it, she says, but it is sometimes a good idea to do so if you require regular absences to make sure that job can accommodate you without conflict.

“It’s not always the case, but most people will be understanding, so you have to decide what is best for your particular situation,” she says. It’s a fine line because you don’t want to prejudice someone hiring you, but you also don’t want to start a new job and have your supervisors feel you were not honest in your interview.

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2. Ask for accommodations if you need them

Once you’re working, if your symptoms are rare or easily manageable, you may not have problems. If you have baseline symptoms and need accommodations, however, there are options.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to make accommodations for people with disabilities. This act protects you if you have limitations of a “major life activity,” which includes bodily functions like digestion or bowels. This includes episodic conditions that are substantially limiting when not in remission.

Some examples of accommodations include moving you nearer to a bathroom if you typically need to go five times a day. Or, if mornings are tough, offering a more flexible schedule may help, such as allowing you to come in and go home later.

Time off is also an issue for people with IBD. You may need extra days off for treatment, colonoscopies, sick days and infusions.

Dr. Philpott says many of her patients fill out Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) paperwork annually to get extra days off if they need them. The FMLA entitles employees to take unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks over the course of a year for medical reasons. To qualify, you must work in an organization that has 50 or more employees for 12 months before applying.

3. Prepare — and expect the unexpected

When you have IBD, it’s a good idea to prepare for anything and everything. Dr. Philpott suggests keeping these basics nearby at work:

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  • Backups of rescue medications (such as anti-diarrheals) that your doctor has approved.
  • An extra set of clothes in case of emergency (if you have urgency issues).
  • Extra supplies for an ostomy, if you have one.
  • Enough food at your desk so you don’t have to eat out or use vending machines if certain foods trigger symptoms or you need to eat small, frequent meals.

4. Take steps to manage stress on the job

There are few people who can avoid stress altogether while at work. This is a particular challenge with IBD because stress often triggers symptoms.

If the stress in your job is overwhelming, you may need to look for a new job. If the stress is manageable, however, Dr. Philpott suggests that you learn and use good stress-reduction techniques. Some that work well in the workplace include:

  • Breathing exercises.
  • Meditation.
  • Guided imagery (a technique that focuses the imagination in a positive way, often with words or music).
  • Recordings that promote relaxation.

Physical activity is also a good stress reducer. If you are able, walk during breaks or take yoga or tai chi classes during lunch to reduce stress.

In general, it is important to know your body, the disease and the law, Dr. Philpott says. This will allow you to work with your employer and make the best use of your talents and skills as you succeed at your job.

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