APRIL marks Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Awareness Month, offering an opportunity to learn more about the condition and how it might affect people in their day-to-day lives.
“IBS causes a problem with the way your gut, or bowel, works,” explains Dr Bryony Henderson, lead GP at digital health service Livi.
“It’s a common condition that affects women more than men, and it’s usually a lifelong problem.
"The symptoms for this can be very similar to types of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which is why it’s important to speak to a doctor and get checked out.”
IBS affects approximately 20,000 people in Ireland. Females, especially younger females are twice as likely to be affected as males. That’s a big number, and although people experience IBS symptoms to various degrees, it can have the potential to impact your work life.
According to Henderson, these are the most common IBS symptoms:
– Stomach pain or cramps which may get worse after eating
– Bloating and gas (flatulence)
– Mucus in your poo
– Needing to pee more than usual
And if someone is experiencing a lot of pressure at work, things might get even worse.
According to NHS gastroenterologist Dr Philip Hendy, who runs The Better Gut initiative: “Stress, including workplace stress, often worsens IBS.
“In my gastroenterology clinics, I often hear patients say it is work pressures that cause their symptoms to deteriorate.”
Henderson adds: “IBS symptoms tend to come and go, and can generally be well-managed. Many people have long periods with no symptoms and only use medication when their symptoms flare up.
“If you are concerned, speak to a doctor who will be able to make an individual assessment, recommend a treatment or refer you to a specialist if needed.”
So how might it affect someone at work?
“Possibly the most common thing I hear about the effects of IBS when working in an office, is the embarrassment that goes with frequent trips to the WC and having to leave important meetings to rush to the toilet,” says Hendy.
“This goes hand in hand with a sense of shame and worry that these toilet trips may be viewed as a form of work avoidance.
“When people feel anxious and ashamed, this can exacerbate their symptoms even more, creating a vicious cycle of worsening stress and ill health, that seeps into all areas of life.”
There is still some stigma around IBS, which might make it more difficult to talk about. Henderson suggests some people could experience “potential embarrassment with needing to discuss personal issues with managers”.
Henderson mentions “anxiety around having an attack whilst at work”, particularly if the “toilet facilities are not as private as one would like”.
It might be tricky when certain food or drink triggers your symptoms, but it’s out of your control when you’re “at work, networking or at other professional functions where food or drink is provided”, she adds.
As one of the symptoms of IBS is tiredness, Henderson says this could lead to a “lack of energy, affecting performance at work, or affecting arriving times”.
Laura Geigaite, medical doctor at Glow Bar London, agrees, saying: “IBS can affect your productivity”, as the symptoms can make you “feel distracted and uncomfortable at work”.
Geigaite suggests the condition could contribute to low self-worth: “There is a stigma toward IBS. This can harm your self-image and sense of worth in the workplace.”
Henderson adds: “Pain, discomfort and bloating can trigger low mood, and could potentially affect relationships with colleagues, as the symptoms are ‘hidden’.”