For the millions of Americans who suffer from gastrointestinal problems, the workplace poses special challenges. They may worry others will notice the amount of time they spend in the bathroom or fear that an embarrassing accident will happen when meeting with a client. The stress from trying to keep up appearances while managing the condition can take a further toll on health as well as affect morale and productivity.
No employee with gastrointestinal problems will be thrilled to have a conversation about the matter with his or her boss. Besides embarrassment, the worker may fear the condition will impede career success. Consider it a respectful, professional gesture if someone gathers the courage to talk about it. Open lines of communication can result in solutions that help both the sufferer and the company.
First, work to understand the condition and its severity. Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and colitis are some of the disorders you may encounter. While you needn’t get into medical intricacies, it is helpful to know what symptoms may arise (such as intense abdominal pain or diarrhea) and how often (daily versus occasional flare-ups).
Then, brainstorm together on ways to take action. Possibilities may include:
- Moving the person’s workspace closer to the restroom
- Scheduling in more bathroom breaks during meetings
- Allowing the person to telecommute on days when symptoms are particularly bothersome
- Arranging coverage if a prolonged bathroom break becomes necessary
- Being aware of dietary restrictions when planning work luncheons, meetings or other events
- Creating a secret signal or phrase that alerts you to the need for the person to make a quick exit
As many workers are reluctant to share health information with colleagues, ask how the person would like questions from co-workers to be handled. As with other medical issues, disclosure isn’t necessary, but silence often leads others to try to fill in the blanks themselves. Team members may become more sympathetic and willing to cover if they know the truth behind what is going on.