Many of us are diagnosed at a young age. We have our parents to take care of us, to drive us to the doctor, to write a letter to our teacher, and to make us our favorite tummy-friendly meal. We go to school and although it’s hard and the other kids don’t always sympathize, we know our teacher will understand if we have to take a long bathroom break. We go to college and find that we don’t have to raise our hand to go to the bathroom. We miss class when we need to, make up the work when we can, and spend the day between the toilet and the couch. We graduate and everyone is proud of what we have accomplished in spite of our conditions.
And then we get a job.
It’s challenging enough, in our current market, to find a good job, or even land an interview. Gone are the days of growing our identities through our IBD experiences, and asking for exceptions whenever they are necessary. Last time I checked, no one was getting paid just for beating a disease. The job-searching, and job holding processes can be very stressful and complicated without a disease, but with something like Crohn’s or Colitis, the obstacles can be multiplied.
When going through the interview process, be aware that there are laws to protect you, including discriminatory protection based on disease. It is also illegal for a potential employee to ask you if you have a disease such as IBD during this process. However, it’s generally a good practice to avoid the topic of illness during this stage. Sometimes, potential employees won’t hire you because of potential future complications and threat of discrimination. Jennifer Jaff, of Advocacy for Patients with Chronic Illness, discusses your rights in detail: http://www.advocacyforpatients.org/legal_disabilities.html
In the workplace though, it can sometimes be unavoidable to disclose your condition with your coworkers or superiors. Perhaps you have to request a private bathroom, or explain why you keep extra pants in your bottom drawer, or avoid most of the food at the company picnic. At my first office job, I had to explain why I might be running late (my colon had a non-negotiable appointment with the toilet, every morning at 7:40 sharp, and for approximately 15 minutes) and pray that my boss would believe me. I also snuck a book of crosswords into the office bathroom for those extended bowel movements during the day. On the other hand, I have been asked in interviews about my biggest accomplishment, and I couldn’t help but tell my story of learning to live with Colitis and completing the Get Your Guts In Gear bike ride for the first time.
First of all, here are some tips for dealing with IBD at work:
1. Map out all the bathrooms in your building. Figure out which ones are cleanest, least busy, and never run out of toilet paper!
2. Show your colleagues and superiors that you are motivated and capable before you let them know about your condition. When you bring it up for the first time, accentuate the positive, like overcoming challenges and being inspired. Make them love you before you discuss your disease, and make them love you more for your strength!
3. Keep some trade journals in your bathroom. This way, you won’t feel guilty about spending too much time in there, especially when its unavoidable. Also, if anyone else sees your magazine stash, they’ll see you are serious about your job despite your frequent bathroom trips!
4. Learn that Crohn’s or Colitis is not an excuse, and live by that. Your co-workers will quickly catch on that you are serious about your coping skills. Also, you one day may need to use it as an actual reason for something- and having people accept this, even when they likely will not understand- and your integrity will be your biggest ally.
5. Keep clean underwear, and maybe even pants, in your desk drawer for emergencies. Pick some out that make you happy- maybe they are cute, fun, or extra comfortable. This way, when you need to call on them for backup, it will be something you’re excited to change into when you feel pretty gross!
All of us have likely developed our own set of coping skills. (Please leave your personal tips in the comments!) A lot of these skills have developed from our experiences of living a chronic illness driven life in the real world. Too familiar are reactions of people who just don’t understand, or don’t even care to hear, about Crohn’s and Colitis.
The professional environment is no exception to misunderstandings. When you do decide to discuss your illness at work, you may be met with unfavorable reactions, and the instant opinion that IBD will inhibit your work ability. But as people seasoned in dealing with IBD, we know that although it is a tough journey, it can make us better people! Here are some specific workplace reasons why IBD can actually benefit your workplace value! Feel free to discuss these with your co-workers, or just become a living example.
1. People with Crohn’s and Colitis know what it really means to be sick, and they understand that they may need to save sick days for when they are desperately needed. The also generally monitor their overall health more closely than the average worker. Because of this, IBD patients may actually have better attendance records, and not call in for minor reasons like a headache or a sniffle.
2. IBD patients have dealt with pain and discomfort on a larger scale than most. Have you noticed that after your experience, or a tough flare, that getting back to normal seems like the greatest thing ever? The tiny bumps in the road become insignificant, and are easily handled. IBD teaches you “ don’t sweat the small stuff”.
3. A moderate or severe flare may render IBD patients in the hospital for a few days or longer, or even just mandate staying at home, in bed, and close to a toilet. This experience is extremely motivating to make the most out of our lives, talents, and energies, for when we are feeling better.
4. A good dose of Crohn’s or Colitis can be a major motive in restructuring priorities. Building trustworthy relationships, job loyalty, and career success can be satisfying results of a job well done, not to mention steady health insurance. Also, the experience of IBD can lead us to desire more meaning and purpose in our lives. This also fuels our desire to accomplish something in our jobs, aside from merely climbing the corporate ladder and chasing a bigger paycheck.
5. Crohn’s and Colitis are full of challenging situations. Sometimes, these can be minor, and sometimes larger. Sometimes there is no choice but to deal, and sometimes they are life-changing decisions, like whether or not to have surgery. Learning to deal with these can teach us how to face challenges like a pro, even when others may back down.
While work is just one aspect of our lives, we do spend a lot of time there. A steady income and source of health insurance are nearly always necessary. Yet we will always have challenges to overcome in this environment, and rising to the challenge, becoming a positive example of someone living with IBD, and spreading awareness will collectively help all of us reduce these challenges.
Please share your experiences of IBD and the workplace in the comments!