Ask Ada: IBS At The Office! How Can I Deal?

Plus: what to do when people at the office start triggering your asthma or allergies,
A frustrated man scowls at his laptop in an office.

Welcome to Ask Ada, Folks’ bi-weekly advice column for people impacted by health issues or disability. Want Ada to help you with a problem? Email Ada at or tag @folksstories on Twitter with the #askada hashtag.

Dear Ada,

I’ve recently been diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and I’m pleased to finally have a diagnosis because I’ve been suffering with this condition for quite some time. It’s even complicated my work situation. One of my coworkers complained to my boss that I’m taking too many bathroom breaks, and since then, my boss has been monitoring my bathroom usage. I try to keep my trips to the restroom at a minimum, and to use the facilities as quickly as possible, but it isn’t easy, and I’m worried this is putting my job in jeopardy. Should I tell my boss about my diagnosis now that I have it? I feel so uncomfortable to have to explain my illness to him, but I also don’t want to lose my job. This is causing me a lot of anxiety, which is just making my IBS worse. What would you do?

“Boss makes a dollar, I make a dime. That’s why I poop on company time.”

Ever hear that jingle in your workplace? Probably. It implies that employees waste time because, well, they can. And some do.

But in your situation, you’re being monitored for bathroom activities that are vital to your physical well-being. You can’t control when you need to go, how frequently, or how long it will take.

I understand that it’s awkward to talk about this, but it sounds like your supervisor might think you’re taking advantage of “break” times, spurred by the complaint from your peer. While employers do have the right to reasonably restrict bathroom usage  (keyword here being “reasonably” and how this interpreted will vary depending on the type of job as well as any state laws), they also have the responsibility to offer you accommodation for any disability in accordance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), if the company has more than 15 employees.

[Employers] have the responsibility to offer you accommodation for any disability in accordance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

Do you have a Human Resources department in your company? If so, schedule an appointment with them so you can both disclose your condition and ask for accommodations, such as the ability to take more frequent breaks or to move your workstation closer to the restroom. Request that your HR department alert your supervisor to not monitor your bathroom usage. Your medical conditions are protected information, so HR should not be disclosing any of this information to your supervisor, simply informing them of the accommodations as appropriate.

If you don’t have an HR department, I’d suggest meeting with your supervisor directly. Let him know about your diagnosis and that you’re willing to provide documentation from your doctor, but that you need to take more frequent bathroom breaks than the average employee. Ask him to stop monitoring your bathroom activity, and assure him you’re putting in your max effort while at work. Oftentimes, an honest —albeit awkward—conversation is all that’s needed to change work situations to benefit both parties. Once you get this conversation out of the way, you’ll find that you’re less anxious about handling your IBS at work as no one will be monitoring you, making the situation easier to deal with physically and mentally.

Three women gather around a desk in an office to consult a laptop.
When you have asthma or allergies, coworkers’ perfume choices can be a health problem.

My Co-Workers Reek, And It’s Killing My Asthma!

Dear Ada,

I can’t breathe at work. Between the smell of everyone’s food, perfume, and the cleaning products, I spend the day wheezing and my chest feels tight when I leave for the day. My asthma and allergies have been unmanageable, and I suspect it’s because of this. It’s as if I slightly recover at home and suffer all day at work. A while back, I spoke with the management and they sent out a notice requesting everyone limit the use of personal products and to keep all food in the cafeteria and not to eat at our desks. That helped a lot, but I feel like everything is back to how bad it was before. What should I do?

It’s time to talk to management again.

The great news is that your company was previously receptive to your issues and took the steps required of them in the past to assist you in easing your medical issues. What’s likely happened is that all the employees fell back into their own bad habits. Now, they need another reminder to check their behaviors.

When you talk to management, let them know how much the changes improved your experience the last time they assisted. Request that reminders to staff get sent out quarterly. On top of that, ask if they’d be willing to schedule walkthroughs of the workspace shortly after the reminders get sent to ensure staff are complying.

No one wants to go to work feeling concerned that they’ll be struggling to breathe while they are there. If you present your case calmly, and with suggestions on how to manage the problem, your management team will likely respond as well as they did last time.

Another option is to ask for accommodations, such as your workspace to be moved to an area that’s better ventilated.

Another option is to ask for accommodations, such as your workspace to be moved to an area that’s better ventilated.

Finally, if the situation remains the same after speaking to management, you might want to consider asking if they’d be willing to make your position into a remote job. Offer to come into work for any important meetings and trainings, and explain that you are asking as a last ditch effort before looking for employment elsewhere.

Know that your employer is not required to change your job into a work-from-home position, but this request might make them understand the severity of your issues, as well as seeing that you’re on the verge of leaving. The effort (and expense) required to fill your position and train a new employee might be enough for them to seriously consider your request.

Are you facing a problem that is being complicated by a health condition or disability? Folks’ advice columnist Erin Ollila wants to help. Email and tell us your problem.