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How to Address Crohn’s Disease in the Workplace

Work can be stressful for anyone, but it may be especially difficult for the estimated 700,000 Americans who have Crohn’s disease. Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease that causes swelling in the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. This affects the body’s ability to digest food. The condition causes painful and debilitating symptoms, such as severe diarrhea and abdominal cramping.

These symptoms can create certain challenges in the workplace. During a flare-up, you may need to run to the bathroom immediately, regardless of what you’re doing. Your productivity may also be affected by other symptoms of Crohn’s disease, such as fatigue, fever, and arthritis.

Juggling your daily work schedule with unexpected Crohn’s flare-ups can leave you feeling vulnerable and exhausted. Attempting to hide the source of your discomfort only adds to this stress. Yet there are steps you can take to help manage your symptoms and address your disease at work.

Monitor your symptoms and stick to your medication and mealtime schedules. You may also want to keep certain supplies in your desk to handle emergencies. These items may include antidiarrheal medicine, disposable wipes, and a change of clothes.

If you’re about to attend an important meeting that may run long, ask your boss or colleagues if you can record it. This way, if you feel an uncontrollable urge to use the bathroom, you can quietly excuse yourself without worrying about missing any information. If you must offer an explanation for your departure, simply say you’re feeling unwell.

You’re not doing yourself or others a favor by keeping your condition a secret. Your co-workers have likely noticed that you often leave your desk to use the restroom. They may also have noticed that you’re particular about what you eat and drink. They can’t ignore that you take all your sick days and then some. Not knowing the reason for your habits and absences can create a climate of resentment, especially if your co-workers have to pick up the slack.

It’s important to overcome your fear of embarrassment and confide in your co-workers. Explain your condition and tell them that you’re doing your best to manage your symptoms. Also, tell them that despite your best efforts, Crohn’s disease still makes work difficult. Your co-workers will appreciate your honesty. They may even offer to help you manage your workload or find other ways to accommodate you. For example, they could stock the break room with snacks and beverages that won’t upset your stomach.

You may be uncomfortable about confiding in your co-workers, especially if you don’t know them well. But it’s important to notify your supervisor. Once your boss knows you have Crohn’s disease, they’ll understand why you’re taking frequent breaks. Telling your boss about your condition also gives you certain rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Companies employing 15 or more workers must follow the guidelines of the ADA. In addition to offering protection from discrimination, the ADA empowers employees with disabilities to request “reasonable accommodation.” For you, this may mean positioning your workstation near a restroom, acknowledging the need for extra bathroom breaks, and allocating more absences during flare-ups. You may even be allowed to telecommute.

Telecommuting has become more common in recent years, as most office workers now use personal computers. You may be able to accomplish the same tasks remotely from your home computer and stay connected to your co-workers by email and instant messaging. You can also use video conferencing tools like Skype to participate in real-time meetings with clients and co-workers.

Telecommuting gives you greater autonomy over your condition. You’re also likely to feel less self-conscious about your Crohn’s disease symptoms when you’re in the comforts of your own home. You may even be able to increase your productivity and decrease your stress.

If you have an opportunity to work at home, take special care not to isolate yourself. Periodically leave your desk and stretch your legs with a walk outside. You’ll be able to de-stress, clear your mind, and reap the benefits of exercise and fresh air.

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