Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Overview

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition which affects the digestive system and usually comes and goes throughout a person’s life. Irritable bowel syndrome is not fully understood, but it is thought to be caused by phenomena as wide-ranging as overly sensitive nerves in the gut, food moving too slowly or quickly through the digestive system, or stress. It is estimated that one in every 5 people in the UK has irritable bowel syndrome to some degree.

What are the signs and symptoms of Irritable bowel syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome can flare up and then subside, but it is common for symptoms to recur six or more times a year, including:

  • Stomach cramps which worsen after eating
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhoea
  • Constipation
  • Incontinence
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea

How is Irritable bowel syndrome diagnosed and treated?

Irritable bowel syndrome is difficult to diagnose because there is no conclusive test, and symptoms are similar to those of other conditions. For example, bloating and bowel symptoms could be symptomatic of coeliac disease and not Irritable bowel syndrome. Blood tests and stool sampling may help rule out other potential issues which may share symptoms with Irritable bowel syndrome.

A doctor will enquire about the regularity and types of symptoms that the person with potential IBS is experiencing to determine whether they do have IBS.

Treatment for Irritable bowel syndrome will typically involve a combination of lifestyle changes and constipation or diarrhoea medication depending on the exact symptoms experienced, although there is no one-size-fits-all approach and symptoms may fluctuate over a lifetime.

Common dietary recommendations include eating fresh, homemade meals and not skipping meals or eating too quickly. Depending on bowel movements, avoiding high-fibre foods such as dried fruit and whole grains may be recommended – or their consumption may be encouraged.

Regular physical activity or other stress-relieving activities can also help if a person’s IBS worsens during periods of high stress. Cognitive behavioural therapy may also help if the person with IBS is struggling to manage their stress in other ways.

A food diary can also help someone with IBS work out what might be causing their flare-ups.

There are a few ways to confirm what sort of reasonable adjustments should be made for an employee with Irritable bowel syndrome:

An employee may not disclose their Irritable bowel syndrome upfront, but if they do, questions regarding the nature of an employee’s Irritable bowel syndrome and what extra support they may need can be broached sensitively. For example:

  • Have they required adjustments in the past? For example, permission to work from home during a period of particularly severe symptoms.
  • Encouraging the employee to express their strengths and interests and which tasks they might enjoy doing is a positive way of adapting to their needs and empowering them, in spite of their Irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Even if the employee does not wish to disclose their Irritable bowel syndrome – or they have not even received a precise diagnosis – an employer can focus on making reasonable adjustments, rather than seeking to determine the precise disability their employee has.

What reasonable adjustments are possible for employees with Irritable bowel syndrome?

Employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with Irritable bowel syndrome if they know, are aware of, or could ‘reasonably be expected to know’ that the employee has Irritable bowel syndrome. Most employees will tell their employer what reasonable adjustments they need. They often involve simple changes in the way an employer might usually do things.

If the employee does not disclose a health issue or disability which may affect their performance up front, an employer should broach the subject sensitively if they suspect that there may be a disability behind the employee’s reduced performance. Reasonable adjustments can then be made in accordance with the employee’s needs, including, in the case of Irritable bowel syndrome:

  • Flexible working hours to accommodate medical appointments and periods of increased absence or decreased productivity following a flare-up in symptoms.
  • Additional breaks. as staying mobile is helpful for relieving stress and can alleviate symptoms.
  • Adjustments to duties depending on the severity of their symptoms, which may be variable and improve or deteriorate from one week to the next.
  • Relocation of workstation, for example, to allow the employee more convenient access to a bathroom.
  • Raising awareness so that colleagues understand the employee’s Irritable bowel syndrome and can help ensure the employee feels comfortable at work, for example, when taking additional breaks or using a hot water bottle to relieve stomach cramps.

Irritable bowel syndrome Signposting

Guts UK – charity campaigning to increase the volume of medical research into digestive conditions, such as IBS, as well as public awareness and support for those living with digestive conditions (020 7486 0341).

IBS Network – charity providing information and advice on managing IBS, working alongside healthcare professionals to advise on self-management of the condition.(Helpline available to network members).

Other Research Resources

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