If an employee took you aside right now and told you they struggle with symptoms of digestive disease…how would you react?
Most of us would immediately feel uncomfortable with the topic. We might blush, feel uneasy; maybe we’d crack a joke to ease tension. We might attempt to change the subject. Yet, if that same employee/coworker confided that they suffered from another physical disease such as diabetes, the conversation would likely be less difficult.
Here’s an interesting fact: more than 70 million people are living with conditions affecting gut health right now. That’s nearly twice the number of people with diabetes.
As common as digestive disease is, it seems like we should be more aware of the challenges facing those 70M+ people. What is it about digestive disease that makes it so hard to talk about openly?
On June 24, we tackled this topic in a free webinar, Taking Stigma Out of Digestive Disease. Our goal? To unpack why this issue is shrouded in embarrassment and shame; and start to understand how it impacts people. Most importantly, we strive to help employers create safe, inclusive environments where gut health is not a taboo topic.
Missed tuning in to the live broadcast? You’re in luck. The webinar is now available on-demand. Just use the button below to watch, listen and learn what you can do to reduce digestive disease stigma in your company.
Hosted by Paul Elsass, Vivante Health’s SVP of Commerce, our webinar covered the following agenda:
- Reasons why it’s so hard to talk openly about gut problems
- The four different types of stigma and how they manifest both in other people, and within our own minds
- Tactics to start respectful workplace conversations and offer symptom management solutions
- A helpful ”talking points” checklist
Vivante Health’s resident Health Psychologist, Susan Staggs, Ph.D., broke down the definition of stigma and explained it can lead to unfair discrimination or exclusion of those who live with painful digestive conditions. “Unfortunately, digestive disorders have characteristics that make them more stigmatizing, including being ‘invisible,’ being chronic and relapsing, and being associated with something our society considers taboo: poop,” said Dr. Staggs. “Sufferers are in real physical pain in addition to carrying a huge psychological burden.”
How Stigma Plays Out in IRL
Dr. Staggs broke out the four primary ways stigma manifests itself in our society:
- Structural stigma: Institutional policies or cultural norms that-often inadvertently-harm those with chronic digestive conditions. For example, this includes when organizational policies or actions such as pre-scheduled work breaks or lack of easily-accessible restrooms in the office make life harder for someone dealing with gut problems. “This includes having formal policies in place that are not properly implemented,” explained Dr. Staggs. “You may have a generous workplace disabilities accommodation policy, but supervisors need to be fully trained on that policy.”
- Enacted stigma: This includes stigmatizing attitudes or behaviors towards sufferers by people who don’t have gut health issues. For instance, a coworker might say to another about someone who takes frequent restroom breaks: “He’s just slacking off work all the time and using a fake illness as an excuse.”
- Perceived stigma: The feeling that others think less of you because you have a digestive condition. This plays out in thoughts such as, “I’m not going to tell my doctor about my latest flare-up because she’ll think I’m just overreacting.”
- Internalized stigma: When you’re subjected to stigma from non-sufferers over time, you may internalize others’ stigmatization of you. “This one is especially harmful, because this can be where anxiety, depression, and feelings of hopelessness emerge,” said Dr. Staggs.
All of these forms of stigma can lead to a number of negative effects, according to Dr. Staggs. This can include (but is not limited to) things like:
- Increased risk of relapse
- Decreased medication adherence
- Increased feelings of anxiety or depression
- Decreased quality of life
- Increased feelings of social withdrawal and isolation.
You Can Break Down Structural Stigma!
Even though it isn’t naturally an easy thing to talk about in the office, we’ve found resources to help employers start the conversations.
The goal is to be fully aware of the ways digestive disease stigma can show up in the workplace, and then tackle it from within. Listen to the webinar to get a full list of recommended actions shared by Dr. Staggs, but here’s a couple quick tips from the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (CDFH).
- Encourage conversations about their condition: Make it known that these are issues any employee can talk with you about in confidence and safety.
- Openly reject stigmatized talk/jokes around the office. Be the person who actively creates a welcoming, inclusive place.
- Educate others about IBS/gut issues.
- Plan events with bathroom accessibility and healthy food options/variety (gluten-free, etc.).
Promoting education about gut health issues in the workplace is key to Vivante Health’s Nichol Oliverio, VP of Client Success. Oliverio spoke about how clients implement and use GIThrive to its full potential.
“With GIThrive, our role is to help employers normalize digestive health wellness,” explained Oliverio. “We offer support so they can start the conversation with their employees, which isn’t always easy. Gut health is still a personal issue for most people.”
The GIThrive app is designed to make it easy for people to begin taking ownership of their digestive conditions at their own pace, with privacy and lots of support if and when they want it. (If you’re new to GIThrive and want to learn more about what we do, watch this quick video.)
Included with the on-demand webinar is our downloadable resource checklist. It’s designed to help HR and benefits managers address digestive issues and encourage ongoing engagement. After all, the point is to be the employer that sparks powerful conversations rather than overlooks some of the most common health challenges facing Americans today.
“We really need to talk about digestive disease stigma at work. If we want to promote inclusivity and develop a strong, trust-based culture, employers need to normalize communication about these issues and stop stigma,” said Elsass.