Working with IBS
Even though I have gotten to a point in my life where my IBS is much better managed compared to when I was first diagnosed nearly two decades ago, it still undeniably compromises major aspects of my life. It is a constant consideration in everything I do or have done--from meal planning, to my living situation, to dating, and to even making arguably one of the biggest life decisions: where and how to work and make an income.
I first started developing serious IBS symptoms during the first semester of my junior year of college and its impacts were far from minimal. I often found myself arriving late or leaving early from class, or missing class altogether, because I needed to be in the bathroom instead. Sometimes, I was late with term papers. Fortunately, most (but not all) of my professors were sympathetic when I explained I had health issues. However, college is quite a bit different from an office job and even though my IBS was not as bad by the time I joined the workforce, it still was prominent enough to cause complications. There were days I had to leave my desk to visit a bathroom several times an hour for several consecutive hours, or couldn't even leave my apartment in the morning to go to work at all because I was feeling so sick.
My many jobs and their impact on IBS
After a few years, I started noticing a certain trend: mornings were the worst for my IBS and the earlier mornings I had to work, the worse off I would be throughout the day. No amount of lifestyle modifications changed this fact about my body. Also, traveling far to get to and from work, and being on my feet for too long also seemed to exacerbate my GI issues. As such, I began looking for and favoring jobs that allowed me to work in the afternoons (or at least later mornings) as opposed to early mornings. This meant I stopped substitute teaching and applying to full-time teacher positions. I also leaned toward positions that enabled me to have a fairly flexible schedule and telecommute as needed (and I won't lie: I also looked for jobs in places that provided an abundance of bathrooms--especially those that are private or semi-private). This of course limited the opportunities available to me, but for those jobs I've held over the years that fit these needs, I have thrived at and been healthier while working.
Nowadays, I am a freelance writer and editor and work almost entirely from home. This is a great benefit, because it allows me the flexibility I require to work well and unrestricted access to my own private bathroom. It means I can take as many bathroom breaks as I need during the day without worrying that a disapproving boss will issue an angry threat of termination for me having the body I do (I also have other health issues too in addition to IBS that require me to work mostly from home). In addition to writing and editing, I also do some teaching and tutoring, but the hours are limited, and do not take place in the early mornings, so it usually does not exacerbate GI issues. Nonetheless, I still have to plan very carefully with what I eat. I usually only have a banana and low-fat protein bar for lunch and just some oatmeal and herbal tea for breakfast to try to preempt any IBS flares.
Options when working from home is not an option!
I am fortunate to have this option of working from home, as many in similar situations do not. It does mean that my income can fluctuate a lot because freelancing is a fickle business. But until there are more positions that offer telecommute and work-share alternatives, it is what is available to me that enables me to be a productive member of society and pay my rent and bills every month. For those who do not have freelancing as an option, they can try to look into other work-from-home opportunities. If they have an office job where theoretically some or most of the work can be done from home, and the business they work for has a certain number of employees, they can try to appeal to upper management to work from home part of the time as a "reasonable accommodation" under the Americans with Disabilities Acts (ADA).1 A doctor's letter of support may be required, and it may help appeal to a division of their state government that advocates on behalf of workers with disabilities.2
It's very hard for others who have not personally experienced chronic illness to understand the nuances of the impacts of something like IBS and how it can infiltrate every aspect of one's life, making even basic things like holding down a job much more difficult (if not at times impossible). But it's a fact that many of us do struggle with and are often forced to carve out non-traditional paths to survive.
How have you been able to work (or have you had to give up working?) and thrive despite IBS?
Have you taken our IBS In America Survey yet?