Is your IBS worse on Monday morning when you go to work? Does it improve when you take a holiday? Have you had to take time off work because of it? Does the pain in your stomach, the discomfort and the bloating affect your concentration, cause you to forget things or make mistakes? If so, you are not alone?
IBS predominantly affects the young working population, in particular women who struggle to balance the responsibilities of work with that of home and family. IBS is said to cost the UK £800,000 a year in terms of lost productivity, but the real figure is probably much larger. IBS causes as much absence from work as colds or flu. Studies have shown that two days were lost from work per month because of IBS, while another 3 days were curtailed, people with IBS missed three times more work than those who did not have it1. Other effects on productivity are less easy to estimate. They include impairment of concentration, loo breaks, tiredness and performing at below optimum efficiency. One study from the United States estimated that having IBS doubled the loss of productivity, reporting that 12-17% patients quit or lost their job because of IBS, 9-18% changed job, 8-9% changed schedule, 15-19% worked fewer hours, 16-26% turned down a promotion, and 11-12% began working from home2. There seems no doubt that IBS has a big effect on the way you work.
‘Constipation is the thief of time; diarrhoea waits for nobody.’
Constipation can make people late for work, whereas diarrhoea can catch people at any time, causing them to have to take frequent loo breaks work, and making travel and meetings almost impossible. Adequate access to toilets can be a major problem in the workplace and cause considerable embarrassment. The pain of IBS can make it so difficult to focus on work and also make people reluctant to eat during the working day because it brings on their symptoms. People are less likely to work efficiently if they are hungry. Bloating can cause considerable discomfort towards the end of the working day.
It can be almost impossible to integrate work, school, family, and a social life if your gut is also demanding attention, but often nobody knows. IBS is a dirty secret. People cannot tell just by looking at you whether you are just in a bad mood or are struggling to cope with a demon inside that is tying your guts in knots. And so, without explanation, the time you need for your IBS may lead to frustrations and irritation among work colleagues.
IBS patients report a quality of life that is comparable to patients with clinical depression. And it’s not just IBS. The findings from a large study, involving more than 125,000 subjects, indicate that patients with IBS are at increased risk for migraine, depression, and fibromyalgia, which is a chronic condition of fatigue, muscle pain, and other symptoms3.
Our digestions …. going sacredly and silently right, that is the foundation of all poetry …. the most poetical thing is the world is not being sick.
Digestion and the regulated activities of the gut require time and a relatively unhurried environment. This encourages the activity of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which coordinates the emptying of the stomach and the mixing movements of the of the intestines with the stimulation digestive juices and the absorption of nutrients.
Work imposes a conflict on the guts. The pressures of work, the focussed attention, urgency, deadlines, the ever present threat of failure, the guilt of letting people down, the ambition, the competition, the shame of being found out; all of these stimulate the ‘sympathetic’ nerves, which prepare the body for action, accelerating the heart rate, raising the blood pressure, increasing concentration, respiration and muscle tone while diverting blood away from gut, inhibiting digestive secretions, altering intestinal movements causing spasms, pain and bloating and disturbed bowel movements.
While the guts of most people can cope with these pressures without complaint, it is very different if the gut has been sensitised by an attack of gastroenteritis or life trauma. Then instead of work being sensed as emotional pressure, the tension is felt in the sensitive gut as another bout of IBS. All of this is so much worse if you don’t get on with your boss or work colleagues, or if the situation at work reminds you of a situation that may have instigated your IBS in the first place.
At The IBS Network, we do understand that you may not always be able to accommodate your IBS comfortable in your working day. Unless you are very fortunate, working life often brings with it a certain amount of stress. There are targets or deadlines, difficult clients, awkward colleagues, a demanding boss and always too many tasks to complete.
Nevertheless, the following lists indicate some changes in your working pattern that you might consider feasible and helpful.