I shouldn't have had the cheap instant pasta for lunch
June 15, 2008 9:06 PM   Subscribe

How do you deal with occurrences of a chronic, non-contagious illness at work?

I have been diagnosed with IBS. I have had unpredictable stomachaches and diarrhea that led to calling in sick, and subsequent doctor visits on my part. I work in a small firm, and everyone has been very good about my going to the doctor or not feeling well. (I have avoided explaining this in detail, of course, just that I "have health issues" to do with my stomach, and that they can see doctor's documentation if they want.)

I feel fine almost all of the time now, but I do catch cramps. I can avoid times like this by paying good attention to my diet, and generally I do, but they're not totally predictable and it looks like they're just going to happen every six weeks or so.

One recent afternoon, I caught an extreme cramp in my stomach of the type that a. made me absolutely unable to get up from my chair and b. threatened diarrhea. I had a prescription medicine for pain on these occasions, and took it. But it took some time to take effect, and I was just sitting there hurting. Afterwards, I was exhausted. I gave into myself, made my excuses, went home and slept for several hours. But I felt guilty. What if it had happened on 10 am on a Monday? Worse, what if someone had come in and wanted to discuss an issue while I was obviously in pain?

How do professionals deal with episodes of being unwell when they're part of life? I'm particularly looking to avoid explaining anything more about this to anyone, ever. I am not an excuse-maker and do not want to be seen as one. Do you know what it's like to deal with something like this?

Private emails can be sent to thethingandthehurtingandthe@hushmail.com.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'm particularly looking to avoid explaining anything more about this to anyone, ever.

Have you talked to your doctor about this specific issue? The interruptions while at work? Or have you tried simply not eating until the end of the work day?

It sounds tough, anyway. Maybe you would be happier with a job that didn't demand your presence in public view at certain 9-5 hours. Telecommuting, self-employment, freelancing or some sort of hours-as-available work might help you simply not work when you're unable, without needing to explain yourself to anyone.

Of course that's less reliable/less consistent income than being a straight nine to fiver, too.
posted by rokusan at 9:17 PM on June 15, 2008

Can you work from home? Maybe not all the time, but at least some of the time? Cause that's what we do at work. If we can't work, and don't want to take sick time, we take our laptops, email our regrets, cancel meetings or phone in, and work from home.
posted by crazycanuck at 9:27 PM on June 15, 2008

Is this a recent diagnosis? If so, I want to reassure you that it does get better with time - you'll find out exactly what triggers the occurences, and you'll continue to get better at managing them. Eventually, it will almost be a non-issue.

Collaborate with your doctor. You need to find one that is willing to have an ongoing dialogue with you .... one who will help you systematically try different approaches to diminish the issues.

If your job is stressful, you may consider looking for a different job. I found that by managing stress and diet, I was able to pretty much eliminate the symptoms that I suffered from a similar illness.
posted by Ostara at 10:01 PM on June 15, 2008

I occasionally suffer from vertigo, which is not the same but creates similar situations (it's hard to prove to somebody that you can't work because you're dizzy, and that it's hard to concentrate on what they're saying because you're feeling nauseous, etc.). There's really nothing to be done about it. You have to accept that even in the workplace, people are humans. Some of them will be compassionate and understanding, and some people will judge you and think you're slacking off. If at all other times your work is good and "professional," then you have the right to expect that people will understand your situation.

In situations where you are fundamentally in the right, but there are people who (understandably) are skeptical, you just need to find a balance between standing firm and confident that you don't need to defend yourself, but also granting that it is an unfortunate situation for you and your employers. Which is to say, apologize when it's necessary, but not too much. Accept people's concern about your health, but reveal only what you feel comfortable. This is a game where it's all about perception: apologize too much or not enough and people will be suspicious. But when you're in pain, any decent human being can recognize that and let you deal with it on your own. Don't let it get in the way (make up work when you feel better), and you should be fine. Good luck -- it's a bummer to be in that situation, I know.
posted by one_bean at 11:00 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I get migraines and other headaches and sometimes I just go home. I make up the hours and, so far, seem to be useful enough in other ways that no-one minds. Right now we have several women at work who are breastfeeding and they just lock their office doors and hang a sign telling people to come back in 15 minutes. Another guy has a bad back and has to get up and walk around for 10 minutes every couple hours. Most people will need similar accommodation at some point in their working life and will understand.

btw, I think it is better to be an in-house professional with this kind of condition than a contractor or hourly worker. You have a much stronger safety net that way. If you have health problems and start to telework a lot people are going to be suspicious that you aren't really working. Sucks but it's true.
posted by fshgrl at 12:43 AM on June 16, 2008

I have IBS myself, and was just diagnosed in December. I am well familiar with the feeling of panic when your stomach starts cramping and gurgling because you *know* what comes next. I've had to go home a couple times because of it too, and it was always with extreme guilt. Its a sickness no one can see (I mean, we *look* fine...) and no one can understand unless they live it. So I'm with ya, man.

I did two things to make it a little easier on myself:
1. I confided the nature of my problem to my immediate supervisor. It relieved a lot of the guilt I had going home when I had to (plus all the time spent at doctor visits) because I no longer worried that I looked like a faker.
2. I kept trying different medications until I found one that kept it in check. I have to take a pill before every meal, but I hardly ever have trouble now. Occasionally I'll feel like I may be starting to have an 'attack', but the drugs almost always put the kibosh on it before it gets to the point where I'm in pain. Maybe talk to your doctor about different medication options? It took me three tries to find one that works, and truly it is a miracle drug. My doctor was amazing and basically insisted that the level of pain/discomfort/frequency of attacks could be improved, and now I'm doing really very well. (Granted, mine is/was apparently much worse than yours, as I was suffering daily attacks, but still it could be worth asking the question)

It is, of course, your call if you want to disclose it, and it really is no one's business but your own, but it make help ease some of your guilt.

Good luck!
posted by gwenlister at 4:34 AM on June 16, 2008

Or have you tried simply not eating until the end of the work day?

I have to super majorly disagree with Rokusan's suggestion. I tried that (again, I suffer from it too) and it only makes things monumentally worse. BELIEVE ME! Plus, it is also super unhealthy.
posted by gwenlister at 5:33 AM on June 16, 2008

dude, would you be ashamed to have diabetes?

just because your particular affliction is poop-related it's not like you have to be ashamed of being sick or you have to feel somehow guilty. it's not your fault, unless you insist on eating only deep-fried burritos dipped in salsa and washed down with ice cold raw milk. it's not your fault, don't be ashamed. and if somebody at work doesn't like that, fuck them.
posted by matteo at 7:02 AM on June 16, 2008

FMLA, right now, assuming you’re in the US. You have to fill out some paperwork, have your doc fill out some paperwork, and put it on record with your employer. This will protect you from being able to be fired for time you missed (from here on out) while out sick due to the IBS issues.

I have a chronic illness that sometimes prevents me from being able to go to work. I also have tons of doctor’s appointments related to said illness. I, like many people, do not have the luxury of caring or understanding employers. You may find there is a point when your employers stop tolerating your illness and absences and that’s when FMLA will come in handy.

To your more specific question, it’s important to let people know that you have a chronic illness. Some people are very rude and will want to know the details, but “it’s a stomach thing” is all they really need to know. Don’t make the mistake that I did, which was telling my boss and a few others more specific details. I did that because I thought it gave more weight and truthiness to my story and that then people wouldn’t think I was lying about it (which I wasn’t).

I think dealing with work is the same as dealing with life in general when you have chronic illness: you acknowledge the suckitude and unfairness and try to plug on through anyway. On the days that you really, truly can’t, call out sick/FMLA.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:09 AM on June 16, 2008

What misanthropicsarah said. I also have IBS, but what I say at work is that I have a digestive disorder. I telework so it is easier to shift my hours around, but I dread having a bad-gut attack while on a conference call where I am driving the presentation. I'm not on medication but I've isolated most of the triggers over the years; ironically, not eating is one of them.

A couple of my co-workers have celiac disease and other digestive stuffs, so it's not a big deal. I once worked in an office where the person whose office was next to the back hallway liked to track bathroom/smoke trips and tattle to the office manager, and in that case I'd probably be sure to nail down my FMLA rights early on.
posted by catlet at 7:30 AM on June 16, 2008

I don't have good news for you. My ex-husband has Crohn's disease, which is very similar, and for the past seven years he has been unable to keep a professional office job. He gets sick at work too often, misses too many days due to illness, is too miserable to be effective or sociable, and inevitably gets let go. He finally gave up and got a retail job he's grossly overqualified for because their standards are lower, but even there he's been in danger of losing his job a few times.

I would start seeking ways to transition to a career that will allow you to work from home with flexible hours. Then you can run to the bathroom whenever you need to, and no one but you will know if you shit your pants.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:05 PM on June 16, 2008

Crohns and IBS are two different beasts. IBS can be managed, and managed well. I don't think it requires a job where they have to work from home... I think that is over stating it a bit, and this is speaking as an IBS sufferer....
posted by gwenlister at 7:12 PM on June 18, 2008

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