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Irritable Bowel Syndrome: a hidden workplace enemy?

IBS affects an estimated 10-15% of the global population, with 40-60% of sufferers experiencing conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression. In the USA 12-17% patients experiencing irritable bowel syndrome quit or lose their job because of this condition. And with many suffering in silence, is it fair to think of this syndrome as a hidden workplace enemy?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome: a hidden workplace enemy?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is an umbrella medical term that describes a multitude of gastrointestinal symptoms including altered bowel habits, bloating and abdominal pain. Symptoms vary and can be worse for some than others. With an estimated 10-15% of the global population suffering from this sometimes debilitating condition, there is no doubt it’s an issue that employers and employees need to take note of.​

Social and workplace impact of IBS

A global report by The Gastrointestinal Society, aimed at evaluating the economic impact of IBS, found that 40-60% of sufferers experience psychological conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression. Internationally, the condition is common in young professionals with an increased incidence in women compared to men, although diagnosis falls for the over 50s. Data has pointed to higher rates of IBS in Asia, South America, and Africa, with some arguing this increase in incidents is due to an uplift in affluence and a shift from manual to managerial professions in these regions.

Economically, the impact does appear to be significant: direct medical expenses and indirect costs, including loss of productivity and absenteeism, has been estimated to exceed $21 billion in the USA. In addition, historical data suggests that the annual cost of IBS-related absenteeism and presenteeism to the international industry has been between $500 and $1,200 per patient.

Causes and symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

IBS is made more challenging because the causes are not fully understood. Added to this, the symptoms can vary in nature, and from person to person: often ongoing pain and cramping is the overriding symptom, but the effects can extend to incidences and combinations of diarrhoea and constipation. Gas and bloating also frequently occurs, as does food intolerance.

Such is the nature of the condition that sufferers need a professional clinical diagnosis to be sure their symptoms are IBS-related and not caused by another ailment.

Alleviating the symptoms of IBS in the workplace

IBS can have a profound effect on an employee’s productivity, and the condition can be difficult to talk about. Employers can offer support by being open and understanding, encouraging sufferers to discuss the issue in the knowledge that they will receive a positive response.

Strategies that work for one person might not for another, but exercise and diet are thought to subdue the symptoms. For employers, this could mean making it easier for staff to take more frequent, smaller, meals. Hot drinks, such as herbal and peppermint teas, are also thought to ease symptoms, so making these readily available could help too. And encouraging employees to take their breaks, ideally with a walk outside or another exercise -such as a workplace yoga class - is beneficial for all employees, not just those with IBS.

For IBS sufferers, living a normal life can be challenging, and working at a desk eight hours a day under stressful conditions can make their situation even more difficult. IBS can have a severe effect at an individual level and the condition can also impact working environments. There is no known cure for IBS, but it is proven that wellbeing, physical activity and healthy habits can improve the lifestyle and help deal with this syndrome. Certainly, employers who take an open and empathetic approach to sufferers might add a positive contribution and be able to help combat the symptoms of this often-hidden - but common - workplace condition.