How to Manage Crohn’s Disease at Work
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Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that can cause abdominal cramping, diarrhea, bowel obstructions, and more. For people with Crohn’s, managing these symptoms at work can pose particular challenges. In one study, people with IBD reported problems with concentration and productivity, according to research published in the October 2019 issue of theEuropean Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology.
By preparing for flare-ups and knowing your workplace rights — which are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — you can return to productivity levels that work with your Crohn’s disease and your career.
How the ADA Relates to Bowel Disease
The ADA, which defines disability as a condition that significantly impairs a “major life activity,” offers significant protection for workers with Crohn’s disease, according to the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA).
“The most promising thing for Crohn’s patients was that in 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Act was amended to include major bodily functions, including bowel and digestive functions,” explains Jacquelyn Spencer, MSW, the manager of educational resources at the CCFA.
Under the ADA, employers are required to provide “reasonable accommodations” if requested to help employees with a disability, including Crohn’s.
Some examples of reasonable accommodations for Crohn’s symptoms:
- Allowing frequent bathroom breaks
- Moving the employee’s workstation or office closer to a bathroom
- Allowing a modified work schedule or telecommuting when symptoms are active
In turn, the employee must be able to perform the basic duties of the job, either with no accommodation or with reasonable accommodations that do not create undue hardship for the employer, according to the CCFA.
Telling Your Supervisor and Coworkers
While it may seem embarrassing or difficult to talk about Crohn’s disease with your supervisor and coworkers, it’s generally a good idea to have at least one confidant, Spencer says. However, how much information you share is up to you.
When discussing Crohn’s with your employer, explain that you may need to take an unexpected leave of absence from work if your Crohn’s symptoms flare up. “You should speak to your employer about family medical leave before you have symptoms,” Spencer says. “You may not need it, but you don’t want to wait until the last minute.”
In some situations, your job can be protected while you take extended leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Talk to human resources about whether FMLA applies to your situation.
You can also discuss other accommodations that will help you perform your job. Keep in mind that you may need to provide medical documentation from your doctor; consider having that on hand during your conversation.
You may also decide to tell coworkers about your condition. Just as you have a support system at home, try to build a support system at work, Spencer says, or at least one person you can call during an accident to say, “Please get my spare clothes or emergency kit from my desk.”
Telling team members about your Crohn’s disease can also help them be more empathetic if you have flare-ups or need to take extra time off. And when you’re feeling better, Spencer adds, you can return the favor and make an extra effort to help your colleagues.
Workplace Strategies for Managing Crohn’s Symptoms
Besides sharing information about your Crohn’s diagnosis with your employer and coworkers, you can prepare yourself for situations that may develop at work. Here’s what to do when Crohn’s symptoms flare up:
Keep an emergency kit on hand.Pack a small bag with a spare pair of underwear, wipes, and a change of clothing in a desk drawer or office locker. Tell a trusted colleague where you keep it, in case you need help.
Take shorter, more frequent breaks.Talk to your boss about altering your regular break schedule when your Crohn’s symptoms are active. You may need to go to the bathroom more often, so you could ask for four 15-minute breaks instead of taking a typical hour for lunch.
Change your hours.Consider talking to your supervisor about staggering your hours or working from home when you have a flare-up. For example, if your Crohn’s symptoms tend to be more active in the morning, request to start work a little later in the morning and continue past the normal closing time, if possible.
And, just as you do with friends and family, pitch in and do something nice for helpful coworkers when your Crohn’s symptoms are quiet and you’re feeling better, Spencer says.
By preparing for emergencies and telling your supervisor and coworkers about your condition, you will set the groundwork for better managing your Crohn’s symptoms and your career.
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