Skip to main content

Being a Career Woman with Chronic IBS

Being a Career Woman with Chronic IBSIntestinal disorders often go hand-in-hand with hard-working women in the workforce. Perhaps it’s constantly dealing with chronic, personal pain that teaches us how to persevere when times are tough. Or perhaps it’s that many of us internalize our stress until it manifests physically. Either way, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), an umbrella term I’ll be using to describe chronic intestinal issues, shouldn’t be holding you back in the workplace. This is, of course, easier said than done. But it is possible with the right strategies in place.

I’ve had some manner of undiagnosed IBS since I was a teenager, more than a decade now. It’s taken me the better part of 7 years to come to terms with it and accept that I may never know what exactly is wrong with me. Through the journey of pain, isolation, and confusion, I’ve learned two very important lessons.

I should always trust myself


I am unstoppable.

Doctors have told me everything from “you’re perfectly healthy” to “it’s your own fault.” Each doctors visit taught me very little and set me further back financially. At times, I even doubted my own sanity. Was I simply making it all up for attention? No, that is silly.

These periods of doubt often coincided with dips in my performance at work. If I was faking my pain, was I also an imposter in my job? Looking back, this is ridiculous. I’ve trained and worked and petitioned to be in the place I am now, career-wise. But it’s easy to get sucked into a spiral of negativity and self-doubt when “highly-trained” doctors don’t even believe you.

It took me years to come to terms with my illness, and to trust myself. But coming to terms with the idea that I may never be “normal” again was my first step to deciding I was unstoppable.
I stopped dropping thousands of dollars at the hospital and made the conscious choice to treat myself and my needs as part of my job. Instead of feeling guilty for hiding in the bathroom instead of attending an important lunch engagement, I gave myself a break. There are some standards which just don’t have to be lived up to. It was a new mindset.

Dealing with flare-ups at work

Managing frequent flare-ups was perhaps the most difficult problem to overcome, and one I still struggle with. For years I wouldn’t use my sick time if I had the flu or a bad cold, I’d save them for the days I couldn’t leave the bathroom. But there are only so many sick days, and many people don’t have any at all. What then, is the best course of action? The answer isn’t an easy one. Keep looking for work until you find the position that meets your needs.

For me, this meant deciding to leave the company I had been with since college in favor of a more progressive culture. It was a huge leap of faith that the next company would be better, and the effort needed to learn a new position would be worth it in the end. I’m pleased to say that it very much was. Hindsight is 20/20 however, and I can honestly say the decision to quit my previous job still gives me anxiety to remember. Now, however, my boss doesn’t question the number of breaks I take for the bathroom. Instead, my performance is judged on the quality and consistency of my work, not merely the number of minutes I sit primly at my desk “looking the part.”

The ultimate goal for many of us struggling to physically go to work during flareups is to find remote work. If you are lucky enough to have the option to work partially or fully at home, I highly recommend it. Sometimes you simply need to be on your couch in your pajama bottoms to be productive. To someone without some form of IBS, this might seem like an excuse. But I assure you, it can make all the difference between being productive and not.

Coping with isolation

The isolation inherent in IBS was simultaneously incredibly hard and incredibly easy to overcome. For years I lived in silence, not wanting to discuss why I was sick so often of why I would refuse invitations to events I had been eagerly anticipating. It was easier to lie about what was wrong or to say, “I have a stomach bug” to get out of discussing it. People always want details, and details aren’t really that fun to discuss.

Finding people to confide in turned out to be considerably easier to do than I had expected. A little over a year ago I stumbled upon a group of women at work with various types of IBS of their own. Completely on accident, I realized that IBS wasn’t a rare occurrence, but that they were decidedly common. I went on to meet people, both men and women, who are celiac, have Crohn’s, ulcers, different food intolerances, ulcerative colitis, and many, many others. Once I stopped lying to others about what was wrong with me, I discovered a positive community of individuals all coping as best they can with their IBS. If you can’t find a community in your workplace, I strongly recommend that you reach out to an online community like the IBS Self Help and Support Group.

Understanding that everyone has their own health struggles was incredibly helpful in determining that I should trust myself. Just because I’m not “healthy” doesn’t mean that I can’t be an exemplary employee. Instead of letting it hold you back, IBS can be a challenge that helps you grow as a person. If you can fight through constant pain without even the benefit of complaining to your co-workers about the gory details, you can certainly excel in your career. By beginning to trust myself and cutting myself some slack, I realized that there was nothing to stop me from pursuing each and every one of my career goals.

If you feel that your career is suffering because of IBS, or if you’ve figured it all out, I’d love to connect with you to learn your story! As no doctor myself, I can’t guarantee helpful advice, but I’ve found that finding a community is a great step to understanding and making positive strides toward career excellence! 

Don't Forget to Subscribe!