Gastrointestinal (GI) disorders include conditions such as Crohn’s disease, gastroparesis, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, spastic colon, and diverticulitis. People with GI disorders may experience various symptoms including constipation, nausea, abdominal pain, or diarrhea. Feeling miserable and stressed out also are common complaints and can exacerbate the symptoms associated with GI disorders.
We all know that stress can be hard on the stomach (emotional “butterflies” are manifested in the stomach) and there is a strong connection between stress and bowel issues. As mentioned above, often there are underlying conditions that result in GI problems, but when there are no known medical causes, these problems are referred to as “functional GI symptoms.” Studies have shown a strong relationship between anxiety, depression, and functional GI symptoms. It follows that stress management and exercise may be helpful to alleviate functional GI symptoms as well as GI disorders in general.
Unfortunately, many people do not discuss their symptoms even with their doctor and often feel embarrassed to discuss their situation with their employer, which can certainly add to their stress. And when there is a work related performance issue linked to a GI disorder, individuals with GI disorders may need to disclose or risk losing their jobs. There may be accommodations that would help overcome the performance issues, but employers are not required to provide accommodations unless they know they are needed. Individuals who are embarrassed or uncomfortable talking about their GI disorders may feel more comfortable making a written accommodation request. For ideas about what to include in a written accommodation request, see: JAN's How to Request an Accommodation.
For employers who have a reasonable belief that an employee’s performance issue is related to a GI disorder and that the employee might benefit from a reasonable accommodation, it might be beneficial to initiate a conversation with the employee. Employers are allowed to address the specific work related problems, may ask why the problem exists without alluding to a possible disability, and if an underlying medical condition is cited by the employee, the employer may ask how they can help to make an improvement, i.e., reasonable accommodation.
The following are real life examples of accommodation situations involving employees with GI disorders:
- A retail sales clerk was frequently tardy to work because he spent the early morning in his bathroom at home due to a GI disorder. The employer allowed a later arrival time at work as a reasonable accommodation.
- A customer service representative was absent from her desk to the point that it was negatively impacting her performance numbers because of frequent and urgent need to use the restroom. The employer moved her workstation closer to the nearest office restroom, thereby reducing her absence from taking phone calls at her desk and increasing her productivity.
- A supervisor at a detention center asked for a less stressful job as possible accommodation because the workplace stress often triggered symptoms of his GI disorder. The employer complied and even suggested the supervisor take some exercise breaks to calm his nerves.
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