Back-To-Work Poo Paranoia Is Real

Photographed by Zaineb Abelque.
Post-pandemic re-entry anxiety is well documented, and widespread. Now, to make things worse, poo paranoia has re-entered the chat. 
'Pan-xiety' at work isn’t new but fresh research is illustrating the depth of the problem. In a study of 2,000 UK adults from health startup The Gut Stuff, 18% said that their most pressing back-to-office concern was going to the loo at work. Like everything else, our toilet habits have shifted during the pandemic and many of us are going to miss the simple freedom of an anxiety-free, WFH poo. 
During a decade of office jobs, I’ve heard horror stories that would be enough to put anyone off a workplace toilet break: overflowing vestibules, eye (and nose) level gaps between stalls, boundary-confused colleagues who insist on replacing water-cooler chat with water-closet chat. Friends have boasted of how they have mastered the art of boss-avoidance in the bathroom. This is a delicate choreography I am yet to learn as I refuse to engage in office poolitics altogether, choosing instead to embark on a series of what can only be described as misadventures around London’s public toilet network, pocket-size perfume unholstered. I would rather visit a train station privy than be overheard by Sally from accounts. In fact, over half of UK workers (53%) leave their place of work in order to find somewhere to go to the toilet peacefully. I feel seen.

Women are particularly concerned about it, with 67% of us saying we’re uncomfortable pooing at the office. This figures. Parcopresis (the social anxiety condition often termed shy bowel syndrome) is thought to disproportionately affect women. As a result, some of those surveyed (18%) said they will hold it in all day, 28% of workers have snuck off to another floor and 18% admitted to going home in order to use their own loo. As well as the obvious inconveniences these diversions cause, ‘holding it in’ may lead to long-lasting discomfort. It can give you an unpleasant feeling of abdominal pressure, a distended belly, and make you feel distracted, nauseous and headachey. 

Employers: it's time to break the office loo taboo

To make dashing to the nearest Wetherspoons every time nature calls a thing of the past, "it's vital for employers to try to help break the loo taboo," say The Gut Stuff founders Lisa and Alana Macfarlane. This goes beyond fixing any exacerbating factors, like the aforementioned discomforting gaps in stalls. Instead, we can work together to dispel the stigma. "It’s so much more than feeling embarrassed – employers have a responsibility to make sure their team’s health and wellbeing is supported in the back-to-work transition, and that absolutely includes encouraging people to go, when they need to go."
Lisa and Alana have pulled together some advice on what we can all do – employers included – to make the concept of toilet breaks in the workplace easier on everyone. This is what they advise:

Simply talk about it

It might be awkward for some but it’s totally relatable for everyone so bring it up! Talk about it at your next meeting or staff drinks; the more it’s spoken about, the less uncomfortable it becomes. Before you know it, Sean in finance has cracked a mediocre poo joke and it’s no biggie.

Send around an office poll to get the conversation going

Ask your employees what would make them feel more comfortable about doing the deed at work. Do you need to start buying air freshener or would it help to have music playing in the loos? Maybe the introduction of a ‘sign system’ would work – making it blatantly obvious who is in there and to kindly give them five more minutes if you can wait.

It’s a no-brainer but ensure there is ample toilet paper around

After all, 30% of us ‘prep’ the loo by laying down TP before a poo to avoid any splashback. #science

Remember, everyone poos

You are not weird or strange for needing to poo at work. What is weird and strange is dealing with distracting discomfort for several hours because of crippling fear of judgement. "Nobody cares as much as you think they do," Lisa and Alana assure us. "They’re all too busy worrying about themselves, we promise!"
The upswing? Widespread improvement of healthy corporate continence is unlikely without continued openness on the subject, which will incrementally shift the discourse. In 2019 a New York Times story on women pooing at work was ridiculed for even bringing up the subject. (Cue our Bathroom Break series, which aims to speak loudly around women and poo in general.)
Let's face it, as we head back to work we are busy enough dealing with other post-pandemic anxieties and our actual jobs. We can’t hold on to poo paranoia until everyone else catches up. Our gut health, and our back-to-work mindset, will thank us if we lead the change and give less of a shit (or more of one, and more often) about pooing at work. I, for one, will be making a conscious effort – pocket-perfume holstered – to embrace a more healthy work-loo balance upon my return to the office.
Information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be taken as specific medical advice. All medical decisions regarding gut health issues should be discussed with a medical professional. 

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