IBS in the Workplace: Bad Fit for Startups

The challenges of working at a start-up are myriad:  crazy founders, long hours, and uncertain payout.  But for employees suffering from a certain gastro-intestinal condition, these challenges are that much greater.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is nowhere near as funny as it sounds.  Symptoms include chronic diarrhea, bloating, cramps and lots of gas. Practically speaking, those with IBS are just one robust sneeze away from a public shart.

See? Not funny. Assuming, that is, that you’re the one with the condition.

IBS symptoms, while annoying and somewhat embarrassing, are not dangerous and are generally manageable. They do, however, require some privacy to deal with discreetly.  This makes IBS a tough condition to manage in the stressful, hot-house confines of a start-up.

It’s not just that the deadlines and long hours of start-up life can cause IBS flare-ups, but also that the small lofty workspaces preferred by start-ups mean a lack of space and privacy to do one’s business.

It’s one thing to suffer from IBS in the sprawling offices of a corporate monolith.  One can find some degree of privacy and anonymity by leaving their floor and tucking into an out-of-the way bathroom.

Not so when one is part of a start-up team sharing a tiny loft. Says Larry, a Palo Alto engineer who suffers from IBS, “There were nine of us, all sharing and working within 15 yards of the same bathroom. I sometimes spent 30 minutes in the bathroom at a time.  It’s not like people didn’t notice.”

Larry did all he could to disguise his condition. “Matches, candles, incense, Lysol. Anything. One time it was so bad I choked my way through a borrowed Marlboro Light in the bathroom. Everyone bitched at me for smoking in the office, but it was better than telling them the truth – that my insides were molten lava and my ass was a Vesuvius that wouldn’t quit.”

Eventually a sympathetic manager called Larry aside. “He goes, ‘Hey larry, I don’t know what’s up with you. Like you obviously have some shit going on…no pun intended.’ Then he just started laughing. I think he was trying to be nice, but it was mortifying.”

Larry started leaving the office when his symptoms flared up.

“I would walk to local businesses for some privacy. Eventually the manager of the Il Fornaio started giving me the evil eye, so I switched over to The Old Pro. There’s less privacy in there, but it already smells pretty bad, so my impact was less noticeable.”

Larry says the only thing worse than a small office is air travel. “You’re stuck in a tiny bathroom at 30,000 feet…people knocking at the door trying to get you to hurry up. They think you’re joining the Mile-High Club, but you’re really just melting from the inside. So f*cking embarrassing.”

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