Guts UK CEO Julie Harrington shares her thoughts…
When the guts work, life works
Many of us are lucky enough to be able to take our guts for granted, never giving a second thought to the process of every day digestion past swallowing. Betwixt the top and the tail, it’s all a bit of a mystery. However, there are literally millions of us who do not enjoy that luxury.
Since becoming CEO of Guts UK charity whenever I tell people about our work it never ceases to trigger an animated conversation. In train carriages, buses and cafes when I say we are the only charity that funds medical research into all diseases of the gut, liver and pancreas it is invariably met with an instant “ooh, funny you should say that. What do you know about….?”
So, I am always bemused by the often used myth that folks don’t like to talk about their guts because this is not my experience. Of course, I’m the one boldly leading the conversation into what I consider to be a hugely fascinating subject, and that seems to be the key. Our own extensive research at Guts UK shows it really is a fact that many people are suffering in silence with their misbehaving guts out of fear, embarrassment and stigma. We know 51% of people can be struggling with symptoms for over a year before going to get medical attention. For some, this delay can be catastrophically too late.
Words used by patients and caregivers to describe what it is like living with their condition
So let’s talk about guts, (baby). Our own research shows 29% of people say their digestive condition has a high impact on their performance at work. Chronic fatigue and pain affects work performance.
“It did affect my work [as an IT consultant]– I wouldn’t eat the night before an event in case I get a toilet issue during the day. That obviously influences your energy levels through the day. I got used to coping by not eating which isn’t healthy.” Patient with bile acid malabsorption.
What employers can do
As considerate employers, I believe there’s a great opportunity to lend support to those who may be struggling and now, more than ever, this topic is ‘the zeitgeist’. Conditions of the gut are so widespread it is inevitable it will affect your workforce whatever the size.
“Some days my belly is stable. But other days I can get dressed in the mornings, knowing my outfit fits well, yet by the end of the day it’s like my body belongs to a different person.” IBS patient
Dignity is all, especially in the workplace. So what can you the employer do? I have a few suggestions.
Healthy Gut Awareness Campaign
Start the conversation in the workplace. Step forward with an awareness campaign for a week or a month, promoting a range of free information sources about the various conditions. Set the tone with awe, wonder and all the fascination our amazing guts deserve! This is not just for people with problems. Good gut health, optimal diet and nutrition is something we should all be interested in.
We have a superb introduction to healthy gut bacteria that is well worth sharing
Information saves lives – A Captive Audience
The back of the loo doors is the perfect location to put up a poster advertising Guts UK’s website www.gutscharity.org.uk where folks can find a wealth of information on conditions of the gut, liver and pancreas. Guts UK can also provide an array of 16 printed information leaflets that you can put on display. Offer a contact within your HR department that people can talk to about their concerns in confidence without fear of disclosure of a health condition.
Empathy and understanding
Just explaining how gut issues affect their life, their work and have an empathetic ear can do the world of good for some people. When the subject is open in the workplace, and invisible conditions of the gut are acknowledged, people don’t feel so alone. Anxiety and stress we know can trigger and exacerbate conditions such as IBS, so acknowledging and offering holistic support is important. It also better informs you about practical ways to help such as the ability to work from home if having a flare up which is not only about toilet access and comfort but helps in relation to fatigue. And allowing people to be open about medical appointments.
Little things mean a lot – Practical bathrooms
I am always impressed when I visit employers who have taken care to have a basket or cupboard with helpful extras. For a relatively small outlay, this is a very strong message of support and an acceptance that ‘stuff happens’ to all of us at some time or other and folks shouldn’t have to panic or feel anxious. Gain the confidence of an affected colleague to talk through exactly what to include.
For further information
Contact Julie Harrington, CEO at Guts UK if you would like support in setting up a Healthy Gut Week at your workplace firstname.lastname@example.org
Other helpful sources of information for employers
Love Your Gut’s #GutTalk Guide