how to deal with a stomach attack in the middle of a meeting

A reader writes:

This is an embarrassing (but probably more common than I think) question. I just got a new role at my company. The company is great, with a pro-employee balance and we’re only in the office about one day/week.

The new role is one which has far more meetings than my current role and is a project manager/SME type of role. I honestly think I can thrive in this new position except…

I suffer with IBS-type symptoms, about 1-2 days a week. I normally only have 5-20 minutes of warning before I’m in desperate need of a restroom. If there’s a flare-up, this can happen several times in an hour. The symptoms are unpredictable in timing.

How do you … gracefully excuse yourself if you’re going to be absent for part of a meeting you’re running? Especially if you’re in a conference room how do you get up and leave?

Should I let my new boss know my horrifying reason I may have this happen?

So far it’s only happened twice during my current job, fortunately during remote meetings, not at work. Both of those times I‘m embarrassed to admit I just dropped suddenly and said, “Sorry, my internet was being weird, did I miss anything?” when I got back a couple minutes later.

But this isn’t feasible with a role that can spend 4-8 hours/day, 5 days/week, in meetings. Do you have a script? Am I overthinking it?

You’re overthinking it a little, probably because you’re thinking “explosive poo” but other people aren’t going to be thinking of it with that much detail.

In a lot of office cultures, if you suddenly need a bathroom mid-meeting you can just quietly leave without saying anything (either as you leave or upon your return). In others, that would feel off. But in either type of office, if it’s a small meeting or you’re playing a major role in it, you usually do need to say something. In those cases, it’s often enough to simply say, “Excuse me for a minute” or “Excuse me — nature calls” or “I have to duck out, I’ll be right back.”

If you’re meeting with the same group of people frequently, it might be useful to just give an up-front explanation that will also cover you going forward: “I have a minor medical thing that means occasionally I might need to step out without much warning. I’ll be back if I do!”

Go ahead and use similar language with your boss, just so she has that context. It’s likely to make it a complete non-issue if she ever does notice anything.

And remember, while you’re framing this as a “horrifying reason,” it’s really not! Bathroom use is a normal thing. Even people without IBS-type symptoms sometimes have a sudden need to excuse themselves! It can happen for other reasons too (for example: injecting a medicine). People won’t think about it much at all. You will be fine!

{ 149 comments… read them below }

  1. Kona*

    If you’re leading the meeting and expect your absence to be disruptive you could arrange for someone to cover for you.

    1. AthenaC*

      This is a great solution, if possible. Have some pre-planned sections of the meetings where you can tap a designated person in to lead while you duck out. Now, you’ll want to give this person a heads-up and probably tell them why you need their help in this way, but any reasonable person would be delighted to help.

    2. Sloanicota*

      This was my thought. Particularly if it’s the same group, elect a second in command, and mention that this is an infrequent occurrence but you might need them to keep the agenda moving if you have to step out. Then in the moment you can say, “I have to step out but Lucinda, can you keep us going on the X concern?” if there’s anything they can make progress on without you. If there’s not a regular person, maybe you can think in advance a bit about what you want them to keep doing if you’re going to have to step out, assuming you’ll be back in ten or fifteen minutes.

    3. Not A Raccoon Keeper*

      I think this is the way! Find a deputy and have good agendas with obvious outcomes for each point (decision needed? sharing updates? brainstorm?). I often prep my boss with a extra version of the agenda that has more of my thoughts/outcomes than what I distribute, so if I need to pop out, or more commonly for my chronic illnesses, if I’m unexpectedly unable to work for the day or week, they can just run the items for me and hopefully get as close to the outcomes as I need.

      1. Smithy*

        I was going to come here to flag the agenda piece. If this role doesn’t necessarily come with an obvious deputy, having strong agendas can stand-in for those moments.

        Essentially being like, “need to leave for a quick moment, please continue the teapot spout design conversation and then move to point three in the agenda, vendor selection. I will be back shortly.” If there is an agenda, then people can either continue to deep dive the teapot spout design and wait for your return, but if they’ve truly exhausted it – at least they know what to discuss next.

    4. Little My*

      Yes, I think this is crucial. It’s fair to be concerned about people’s reactions to the leader of a meeting leaving for 20 minutes, not because they’ll think it’s gross (I doubt they will) but because they might not know what to do with that amount of time. If everyone else is prepared to keep going without you, that should take care of the problem.

    5. Jules the 3rd*

      Or even just regularly co-leading the meeting. Great way for your co-leader to get experience and exposure.

      Either way, if you’re in a flare-up, definitely tap one of the other attendees to be your backup. Maybe assign them meeting minutes and mention that if you have to step out, they should keep things moving.

    6. Letter writer*

      I don’t even know why I hadn’t thought of this, I suppose probably because I’m used to being part of an individual role instead of a PM role. My new manager always tells us to stay apprised of others’ project status and to keep her at least surface level. But I hadn’t thought of having someone jump in. It may not be as hard to arrange as I thought.

    7. samwise*

      Right, have someone there to hand it off to.

      And I would say something at the start of the meeting– such as, I may need to step out suddenly for medical reasons, Wakeen will take over if that happens.

      Same as if you know you will have to take an urgent phone call–I may need to step out suddenly for an urgent phone call (I usually say, phone call about my son or phone call about a family member or phone call from a doctor), Wakeen will take over if that happens.

  2. GrooveBat*

    Always have a plan for what should happen in your absence. Either designate a substitute or figure out whether people need to collaborate on something while you are out. Otherwise, it is really not a big deal and I don’t think anybody will think much of it.

  3. WonderEA*

    Part of it might depend on your position/status in the company, but for my boss, it’s no big deal. My boss (CEO) has a notoriously small bladder and will often zip out of meetings (in person or Teams) saying “had too much coffee! I’ll be right back!” No big deal, just a quick departure and return. The less fanfare the better, and the meeting usually just rolls on without him, or we pause and pick up when he comes back.

    1. Beth*

      Let’s cheer for normalizing ordinary bodily functions! Especially when the accommodation needed is so minor. For most of the other folks in most meetings, it will mean five minutes of checking their phones openly instead of surreptitiously. Or, for some of us, the chance to go to the rest room also!

      1. Reluctant Mezzo*

        Yes, I still remember that ghastly presentation for four hours with no bathroom break…(shudders).

  4. Guest*

    I have a similar issue and am a board president so it is really difficult to leave multiple times in a board meeting: always a good idea to deputize someone else to cover for you if you need to step out. Ideally someone you are comfortable enough with that you can explain and trust not to blab your business. That person can just know that if you are out and action is needed from the leader (a motion is made or we need to move to next agenda topic due to time), they take over. For me it is my immediate past president.

    1. art bart*

      I hope it’s not too immature to laugh at “a motion is made”.

      (Saying this in total sympathy with the LW as someone who has had very similar issues in the past).

      1. IBS for 35 years*

        Laughing hysterically at everyone who is recommending saying, “Let’s take a five (or ten) minute break.” Gosh if I could take that quick of a bathroom break during a flare I’d be over the moon with happiness!

        What I do (and no, it’s not a great solution or even the healthiest solution) is eat as little as possible if I absolutely have to be leading something and there is no other accommodation or option. I think you’ll find many people with IBS and IBD do this. Sometimes there is no other option. Stress can set me off-so a big presentation out of the norm might be a trigger for an episode.

        1. aqua*

          Also have IBS-D and I take loperimide if there’s something I need to guarantee my presence for. A doctor recommended it a few years ago and it’s a life saver. A lot of people I know with IBS don’t seem to know about this so I try to pass it on when I get the chance!

  5. June*

    The “I’ll be right back” is a key component of this – makes it clear you’re not just abandoning the meeting, but just stepping away for a few minutes.

    Depending on the kind of meetings you’re running, it might help to have some things in your pocket if you do need to step away with short notice. If there’s a reasonable “deputy” you could coordinate with to run things in your absence, that could be a great option especially for recurring meetings. Individual or group work can also break up a meeting and give you space to step away – things like “let’s all take 5 minutes to silently brainstorm some ideas” or “everyone break into small groups and share some ways that you’ve address this challenge” etc.

    1. Sloanicota*

      Although I wonder if OP can tell when this is going to be a recurring issue and they might be better off just cancelling the rest of the meeting due to being suddenly ill? They can’t be stepping out every fifteen minutes expecting people to wait repeatedly … and it does happen to the best of us sometimes. I’m not sure if they have enough warning to know if it will be one one-time absence or not.

      1. Walter*

        Tell me you don’t understand IBS without telling me…. And yes, they really can be doing it that often, because if necessary it’s a medical exemption / accommodation issue.

        1. Wounded, Erratic Stink Bugs*

          I mean, they did tell… they said “I wonder” and “I’m not sure if.”

        2. Silver Robin*

          Sloanicota is not doubting the frequency. The question is whether OP can tell ahead of time whether the flare up is happening. “They can’t be” is meant to say that ducking out every 15 minutes as the leader is disruptive, which it is. So it might be useful to figure out if there is scheduling flexibility and employing that more often (which is in itself an accommodation).

          If that is not possible, for whatever reason, then dipping out every 15 minutes is what it will have to be, and other commenters already covered a good number of suggestions for dealing with that.

        3. Colette*

          It’s not the bathroom use that Sloanicota is disputing, it’s leaving everyone in a conference room waiting. And that may not be a reasonable accommodation – but canceling or rescheduling meetings may be.

          If the OP can’t have someone co-chair/act as backup, it may be reasonable to cancel the meeting if she has to step out a second time in half an hour, for example.

          1. Kyrielle*

            Yeah. I’m not the OP, but if I’m having a normal day and just have to duck out once, that’s fine. If, however, that once takes 15-20 minutes because I can’t step away from the toilet long enough to return to the meeting room, it’s a problem – and if it starts a cycle where I’ll be in and out of the meeting every few minutes, it’s just as big a problem. In that case, either turning the meeting over to someone else (if anyone else can run it) or canceling and rescheduling are better options.

            I’m fortunate enough that while I have IBS, I very rarely need to present in meetings, let alone lead them. I can just slip out and back in with no inconvenience to anyone but me. But if I were leading, just slipping out and back would be a worse option on a bad day.

        4. HR Friend*

          Tell me you don’t understand accommodations without telling me…

          People don’t get carte blanche to do anything at work because it may be related to a medical issue. Of course if OP wants accommodations for their IBS, they can pursue that. But they haven’t, and it doesn’t sound like they want to since they’re reticent to call attention to their illness. “They really can be doing it that much” is only true if they don’t care how it looks when they run out of a meeting -or- if they have a documented, agreed-upon disability accommodation to do so.

          This saltiness is just being returned to sender and is not directed at OP, who seems to be doing their best to navigate this tricky issue!

        5. JSPA*

          This seems to be quite individual, and thus not out of line to ask. There are subtypes of IBS, varied presentation, varied diets and meds and surgical interventions, as well as varied awareness of internal plumbing, of one’s overall inflammation levels, abd one’s stress levels. People vary in their default transit times, when not in a flare: 3-day transit +IBS can be harder to guesstimate than 8 hour transit + IBS. People also vary dramatically in their ability to recognize patterns. And in whether analyzing something while it’s happening makes them feel more empowered or more overwhelmed.

          We can’t understand your IBS, nor the LW’s IBS, by defaulting to our own experience–whether or not we have IBS.

          “Do you generally know when it hits, based on past experience, sensation and knowledge of what you’ve eaten, whether it’s likely to be 15 minute sessions every 30-60 minutes or 5 minute sessions every five to ten minutes” is a reasonable request for clarification.

          There may be situations where “something has come up, we will need to continue on tuesday, remotely” is the only way to handle it, while other events can be handled by handing off, or telling people that you’re leaving the room while they brainstorm.

      2. Eldritch Office Worker*

        They are explicit about how much warning they have, and they can absolutely step out as often as they need to. They just need an emergency plan.

    2. MtnLaurel*

      I came here to say this as well. It’s often a feature, not a bug, to have small group or brainstorming to break up the long meetings. You can practice saying something like ‘I need to step out for a few minutes, but for right now let’s discuss X at your tables, use post-it-notes to get you thoughts on Y, work independently on Z,” or whatever tasks they can do.

  6. Sedna*

    Agreed with the above comments! If you’re concerned about your absence disrupting things, have a backup to run the slides, cover the agenda, etc. You can offer to do the same for others as needed. In general, people are very understanding about things like this. I had a recurring C. diff infection last year and had to bail in the middle of meetings with zero notice once or twice – I felt awful about it, but my coworkers were very understanding and kept things moving (ha!) while I had to step out.

  7. curiosity killed the cat*

    If you are leading the meeting, I feel like this can be hard to do! I’ve had to duck away on calls I’ve been leading for emergencies and it feels weird to leave the group in silence.

    Depending on the context or who else is in the meeting, one option is to ask someone else to share something relevant (“I have to duck away for a moment – Alma, can you catch the group up on X element of the project that you’ve been working on”) or the group to discuss (“I have to duck away for a moment – while I’m gone, can y’all compare notes to see if we all had the same takeaway from yesterday’s press conference?”). Just where possible giving the group guidance on how to continue in your absence.

    Would love to hear other options people use too when running a meeting where they have to briefly step out.

    1. Betsy*

      I was training a class of adults when I experienced incredibly painful menstrual cramps. It’s really hard to make yourself leave the room when you’re leading the training/meeting, so I stayed and tried not to make “I’m in pain” faces. Fortunately, I was the decider of the break times, so we had an early break that day.

      1. Betsy*

        One other time, I could feel a bathroom emergency coming on, and that time I had no choice, so I said I needed to step out for a minute and I’d be right back. I think that’s all you can do. If you need to leave the room, you need to leave the room.

    2. samwise*

      It’s really do-able. Upfront an alert that you might need to leave suddenly, but [name] will lead the meeting in that case.

      I’ve done this for meetings and for classes, 1-on-1’s etc. Most people are understanding.

  8. Donkey Hotey*

    We use the term “Bio break” which acknowledges that we are all living breathing people with bodies that don’t always conform to clocks and schedules.

    And yes, if you’re meeting with the same group repeatedly, a brief synopsis and a designated back up who can hold down the fort in your absence.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      I always really hated that term. We don’t use bio in that way in general so it sounds like you’re going off to dissect a frog

      1. Melissa*

        I agree, it sounds forced to me. “Bathroom break” is fine, but so is just “quick break.” Or sometimes the euphemism, “stretch your legs.”

      2. Goldfeesh*

        For some reason “Bio Break” conjures up a lot worse images than just going to the restroom/taking a bathroom break. I’m not even sure what it conjures up, but I think bio break is the equivalent of how people hate the word moist.

      3. Helvetica*

        Me too.
        I think it’s normal to say “a bathroom break” because we are all living breathing sh*tting people! Calling it a bio break to me seems like we think it’s somehow shameful, so the opposite of what it is trying to convey.

        1. Kelsi*

          I mean, you don’t have to like the term, but my understanding is that it was coined for all the possible “bio” needs someone might have to attend to–bathroom, getting water, etc. I’ve usually seen it used not by an individual to “hide” that they’re taking a bathroom break, but more by a group leader to indicate “we’re taking a super short break so please get your bodily needs met.” (In the video game world, at least, the reason you’d say that vs. just “let’s take a quick break” is to remind people to do things like drink water…because that is a group that in my experience often forgets)

      4. Slartibartfast*

        I’m very used to it in a video game context- bio break to take care of the human bodies behind the screens. It’s a common expression in the gamer community.

      5. Nonanon*

        Darn now I’m upset I never used that phrase when I worked in a lab:
        “Sorry boss, need a bio break, will be back in a few!”
        “You’re putting PPE on in front of me, you’re clearly leaving to start an experiment, sit back down.”
        *sad nitrile glove snap*

      1. Not Totally Subclinical*

        Are you saying that because there are people who are uncomfortable with the expression, it should never be used? Or are you saying to be aware of how your particular audience feels about it?

      2. Donkey Hotey*

        Previous discussions on this website have shown that someone is uncomfortable with every expression.

    2. Jiminy cricket*

      My team does this, to. We use bio break to mean a number of things. Could be the restroom. Could be you’re parched and need a drink. Or you desperately need a snack. Or you just biologically can’t make your brain cells work after back to back calls and need a minute or two.

      Nobody cares which. Just, I need a minute to be human.

    3. MountainAir*

      I’m never going to quibble about how people use terminology around this, but I’ve always found “bio break” hits my ear wrong, and I’m unsure why just saying “we’re going to take a five minute break” wouldn’t work in almost all contexts.

  9. IT Relationship Manager*

    If you’re leading a meeting you might be able to pull a, “Let’s take a quick break!”

    My executive used to call for “Bio Breaks” for when he needed to use the toilet. It’s a bathroom/coffee/water/whatever you need break.

    And to be honest as a person who also needs access to the bathroom, I wouldn’t be miffed if you said, “I need to step out and use the bathroom for a few minutes, please excuse me.” We are human beings and have biological functions! It’s not ideal but nothing to get upset about. I wouldn’t need any details about your medical history either. They could help with your team so they know to plan breaks in their presentation! But it’s not 100% necessary to indulge that to everyone.

  10. Lucia Pacciola*

    Excusing yourself from a meeting is the same regardless of why you’re excusing yourself. You’re thinking about IBS. Everyone else is thinking that stepping out of a meeting is a totally normal thing that people do sometimes, and then thinking about something else entirely.

    1. Mama Llama*

      Yes. FWIW, I have only ever worked full-time in-person, and I have never noticed that I work with someone with IBS-type problems. It’s probably not because I have never worked with someone with IBS-type problems. Most people are not monitoring others’ bathroom needs.

      1. WS*

        I have worked with two bosses (sisters) who both had IBS and was the covering deputy for them, so I definitely noticed but I don’t think anyone else did. On that note, having a trusted deputy who can keep the meeting moving is very helpful in case you get stuck in that awful IBS cycle and can’t get back.

    2. xyzabc*

      Except if you have to leave multiple times. That becomes embarrassing. I’ve pretended I got a call or a text after having left already.

      1. mli0531*

        As an IBS sufferer, I have definitely done the “pretend call/text” after stepping out more than once during a meeting. I did have a manager follow up and make sure everything was okay and it was easy to assure him, that yes, everything is okay.

      2. Michelle Smith*

        It becomes embarrassing for *you,* but only because you’re thinking more about it than anyone else is. If anyone has had to step out of a meeting I was in repeatedly because of IBS, I literally cannot remember it. I can’t remember a single time anyone left any meeting actually. The things I remember were people being weird and cavalier about what they were doing – like the guy who announced he was going to be huffing and puffing for the first half of the meeting because he was still on the treadmill and hadn’t had time to finish his workout before the start of our recurring meeting. That one was memorable just because of how he framed it. If he’d just quietly been off camera or said excuse me, I’ll need to be off camera for a bit with no further explanation, I definitely would not still remember it weeks later.

        IMO the excuses are not really necessary. Just be polite and no one will remember or care. We’re all focused more on ourselves than our coworkers’ bathroom habits (and those of us who aren’t are the problem, rather than the person who needed multiple bathroom breaks).

    3. anxiousGrad*

      Agreed. I had kidney stones this year and in the last week or two before they passed I would have to go to the bathroom, often urgently, about every 45 minutes. I was so embarrassed, but when I alluded to the situation later, I found out that none of my coworkers had noticed that I was constantly running to the bathroom.

    4. Clare*

      There’s a lot of women who develop bladder problems post-childbirth, and plenty of women who develop UTIs easily due to common issues like endometriosis. Suddenly needing the toilet or using it regularly is fairly unremarkable amongst women. It’s either you or someone close to you.

      The letter is about the other kind of toilet trip, but regardless people don’t take the time to make a deep and meaningful assessment of what you’re most likely to be doing when you announce “Back in two minutes.” and leave. They usually just shrug and go “Yup, that’s normal life”.

  11. Beth*

    I’m in a similar role, and I can definitely see how this would be a challenge. You can’t quietly duck out of a meeting you’re running the way you can with a meeting you’re sitting in on! But I don’t think it’s an insurmountable challenge at all.

    If your meetings are mostly internal and your biological needs can usually be handled with a 5 minute break, honestly, just own it. “Hey all, I need to drop for a minute to handle an urgent home thing, I’ll be right back, talk amongst yourselves” is perfectly reasonable for among teammates. (If it was less frequent I’d say I see no problems with your internet excuse, but you don’t want to keep that up on the regular–that’ll lead to questions about whether your setup is capable of supporting remote work.)

    If you need longer than that, or you have a lot of client-facing or inter-team meetings where you’re not just a member of a working team but also a representative of your team/company, then you might need more of a plan. I’d bring it to your manager and ask for help putting together a plan.

    1. The dark months*

      Yeah I was thinking there could be more flexibility in excuses/delay tactics for internal vs external meetings. Given how frequently OP is in meetings though some are bound to be external and having a deputy as many others has suggested seems like a good plan.

  12. Cold and Tired*

    I’m in a similar boat, also with IBS so I understand how it can come out of nowhere and demand immediate action.

    When I’m remote or not leading, I either just drop in the chat that I’m stepping away and will be back in a few minutes, or slip out of a meeting quietly while leaving my stuff so it’s clear I’m coming back. I haven’t had it happen while I’m leading or have been able to power through the few minutes of heavy discomfort with a poker face until I can hand it off to someone else, with the same minimal excuse.

    I’ve found that people have plenty of reasons why they need to step out, so the less of a fuss I make about it the less attention I get. And if I do have to explain it to someone, I just go with the “chronic medical condition that sometimes flares with little warning, so I might have to step out now and again for a few moments to treat it” type excuse. After all, IBS and other digestive problems are legit chronic medical conditions, so I just treat it like any other one even if the bowel part of it makes it less socially acceptable.

    1. Michelle Smith*

      “the less of a fuss I make about it the less attention I get” – this exactly. It’s not as weird if you don’t make a big deal of it.

  13. NotTheSameAaron*

    If you have any control of the meeting location, try to get one with or near a bathroom.

  14. iglwif*

    I have an Unidentified Intermittent Digestive Thing (which when it flares up shares the relevant symptom with IBS) and I used to work for someone with inflammatory bowel disease.

    No one who doesn’t have direct experience is going to leap immediately to “horrifying explosive poop.” If you’re matter-of-fact about excusing yourself and explain you’ll be right back, people take it in stride. Most people do not want you to ask them about their bodily functions so they will not ask you about yours. (Sometimes there’s a distressingly invasive person, but if that’s the case nothing you can do will stop them.)

    It might be worth deputizing someone ahead of time to keep the discussion going, if necessary, when you have to duck out. Depends on what kinds of meetings these are and what exactly leading them involves! I’ve “led” meetings that did not in fact need me to do or say much, and others where if I don’t keep prodding the conversation along, there’s just awkward silence.

  15. Doubtful*

    I had this issue last year (it ended up being a long-covid inspired need for WAY more fiber than I’d been eating), and I dealt with it as many commenters have suggested: For small recurring team meetings, let everyone know at the top of the meeting you may need to step out but that you should be back, and follow good project management practices of making sure everyone has the agenda ahead of time so if they need to, they can continue the discussion without you. For client calls or calls where you’re leading, always designate a backup and make sure they know that they’re the back up; and again that agendas or talking points are available to them.

  16. Tara*

    Every long meeting I’ve been in there’s time for a break. If you’re leading it you could probably get away with “let’s take a short break.” No one would think twice about it, even if it’s an hour meeting I wouldn’t think it was that odd.

    1. keyw*

      I have IBS, and this is exactly what I do. As long as I say it like it’s no-big-deal, no one bats an eye.

    2. Shirley You’re Joking*

      I like this idea but as someone with Ulcerative Colitis (similar symptoms to IBS) I’d love to say: let’s take a break but let’s do it in a way so that I’m in the public restroom alone!

      Single user bathrooms at my new job removed so much stress from my life!

  17. Frodo*

    Apologies if this is TMI, but I used to get horrible rear end cramps one or twice a year during my period. I never knew when it was going to happen, it would be a lightening quick cramp and then go away. Think of it as accidentally sitting on a broomstick. Now think of the pain that would cause. Now think of my colleagues’ faces when I would jump out of my seat screaming.

    There was nothing I could do other than say, “Sorry, weird cramp, let’s continue.” Bodies happen.

    1. Anonymous Demi ISFJ*

      I get those – I don’t usually scream, but if anyone is watching me I imagine they think I’m possessed as I very quickly shift positions or jump out of my chair entirely… so thank you for this script in case anyone besides my wife ever sees!

  18. cindylouwho*

    Unexpected-attacking-chronic-illness sufferers unite lol! No suggestions beyond what’s already been said, just that I sympathize. I never personally question why people come and go in meetings.

  19. UnemployedInGreenland*

    I have IBS too and this has happened to me a few times, in person and also over Zoom meetings. I generally let people know ahead of time that I have “issues” and might need to excuse myself quickly. So far, it hasn’t been too disruptive. I always line up a backup person to cover for me in case I have to run.

    But I’m job hunting now so who knows what might happen in my next gig?

  20. Butterfly Counter*

    I’m a teacher for university students. I’ve had to leave the classroom to be sick twice.

    The first time was right at the beginning of class. I came in, set my stuff down, did a u-turn and ran to the bathroom (food poisoning I think), and got my second wind and did a quick lecture and dismissed class.

    The other time was a bit more of what you were worried about. My guts were upset since the word go. About 30 minutes into the lecture, which the students could see me struggling with, I just was surface-level honest: “Hey everyone, I have to say I’m not feeling well. I’m going to cut this short for all of us. Please do X reading by next time, remember about Y assignment, and I will see you Wednesday.”

    1. WonderEA*

      I’m sorry that happened to you! I think this is a good reminder to all of us that we have bodies and sometimes they are uncooperative, and we should just own it (without TMI) and move on/cut things short as needed.

  21. Carrie Oakie*

    I have all the GI issues you can get and there are days where all the stars align and I’m barely at my desk. Fortunately I’ve had good coworkers and managers who understand and have felt comfortable enough to share a simple, “I sometimes have a flare up that means I need to spend more time away from desk than usual.” I’ve also sent myself home (back when we were in office) on those days, because I felt it was more of a distraction for me to be up and down all day.

    If I’m leading a meeting, if it’s a one on one I just say “excuse me, I have to step away, let me get back to you in a few minutes.” If it’s a team meeting and I’m running it, I’ll usually slack my peer and ask her to take over while I step away, then mute my end and turn off the camera so it’s not a distraction, and I’m able to rejoin with ease. It’s similar for in person as well. Most people are compassionate and aren’t going to make it into a thing. And if someone does, that says more about them than it does about you.

  22. Jade*

    I don’t eat more than a couple of bites of yogurt going into a meeting or procedure. Also have IBS.

  23. techie*

    This will either make LW feel better or worse…

    I work in a start-upy place with lots of dudes and potty humor. If someone is late to a meeting (often via Zoom), my VP will usually say “they’re probably pooping.” So…it’s normalized?

    1. mli0531*

      Awful. And kinda one of my nightmares, as IBS can be really in predictable in when it happens and for how long the event takes to pass. Luckily, I have a work I can take with me if I am getting close to a meeting and at least alert someone I might be a bit late.

  24. keyw*

    I was so happy to read this. I suffer with bouts of severe IBS and other digestive conditions as well. For the first couple of years, especially being early in my career, I thought that having an episode at work would definitively stop the world from turning. I can tell you, it does not.
    It is so much more common than we think. Personally, here’s what I’ve done to put myself at ease mentally:
    – You are not obligated to share this info at all, but I have found it helpful to have a vague conversation with managers (when I’m confident they’ll handle it well): “I just wanted to let you know that I have a health condition that sometimes means I need to step away from my desk for just a few minutes. I have never needed accommodations, but please let me know if it ever becomes a problem or if you’d like me to submit any documentation to HR.” Every time I’ve shared this, the manager was grateful, said there was no need for documentation, and became very supportive.
    – If it happens in a meeting I’m leading, which it has, I have lines prepared so I stay calm in the moment. “If you all don’t mind, can we take 5? I need a quick break.” “I’m sorry, I’m not feeling great today. Let’s take 10 minutes for a quick break, then regroup.” “Can we pause here for a few minutes? I need to step away from my desk.” Or, depending on the office culture, I think it can be fine to say “I’m going to pause for a restroom break, let’s regroup in a few minutes.” The key for all of these is to say it calm & collected. People won’t bat an eye.
    – Working from home has helped me more than anything else, but I also find that I can do things in the office to keep myself at ease. I keep my medications nearby, I wear layers in case I start to get too hot or too cold, I know where all the bathrooms are, etc.
    I hope some of this helps you. My current workplace has a very professional but friendly atmosphere, and I’ve become close enough to share my issues (vaguely) with a few colleagues. Two of the three people I shared with, also had IBS-like symptoms. I promise, it’s not nearly as big of a deal as it feels.

    1. mli0531*

      I wish I could feel comfortable saying “back in 5 mins”. Sometimes it takes a lot longer for the situation to resolve (sorry for the TMI). I have definitely deployed the “stepping away” or “nature calling” verbiage in online meetings to communicate that I am stepping away.

  25. metadata minion*

    I suspect most people who do guess correctly about why you’re leaving are those who have similar complaints themselves. My reaction would be “oh, no, poor [coworker]”. While sure, I’d rather not know any details about a coworker’s bathroom problems, that’s part of working with humans. I’d also rather they existed as perfect physics-textbook spheres that didn’t cough or call out sick the day of an important meeting or use the microwave right when I need to use the microwave, and I’m sure they feel the same way about me. :-b

  26. Mrs. Wolfe*

    Yes, in some contexts, it would be appropriate (and even welcome) for the session leader to call a break. “Let’s take a short break here, for people to use the bathroom or get themselves water or a hot drink. Let’s come back for [specify a time in 5 or 10 minutes time].”
    Obviously, if the group has had a break in the last 30 minutes, calling another break so soon would feel unexpected.
    But after that…
    I am a facilitator and I’ve been learning about, and incorporating, anti-ableist good practice more and more. I’m relaxed and confident about, for example, calling a break every now and then. I’ve noticed I often get positive feedback about these practices, because they make everyone’s experience better. Everyone’s relieved to get breaks in a zoom meeting.

    1. Letter writer*

      This comment had me actually laughing out loud as I read these comments. But I have a toddler so I clean up enough poopy pants outside of work thanks!

  27. Ellis Bell*

    I think it’s perfectly okay to just say you just need a bathroom break and will be back in five, but if you want to be super duper polished about it:
    1) Have a discussion slide with a thought provoking picture or thunk on it; something that will get everyone talking; “Okay I’m going to give everyone five minutes to talk about this and then we’ll regroup”. As everyone chats, go to speak to someone towards the door, or half way, and tell them you’re stepping out.
    2) When needed, just say “I think we’ve reached the point of needing a comfort break! Everyone back here in ten?” But this run the risk of filling up the stalls of the nearest bathrooms unless people go for the tea/coffee and biscuits tray.
    3) Set the expectation that this is an okay thing for people to do at the beginning: “If anyone needs to step away for a comfort break, that’s fine, and if I need one, I’m getting Harry to talk in more depth about quidditch because he’s so much better at it than I am!” Then, when nature calls just say: “Okay, so I’m going to have that comfort break very quickly, and if Harry doesn’t want to talk about quidditch, why don’t you all discuss that last item while I’m gone and come up with some questions for me.”

  28. Observer*

    I gave a quick look and I think you’re getting some good feedback.

    I think that the most important thing you can do here is remove “horrifying” from your thought process, even in a lighthearted way. Treat it like any other even.

    IBS, and other similar issues are not horrifying. They can be a embarrassing but that’s not the same thing.

  29. IT But I Can't Fix Your Printer*

    If you’re in the kind of meetings where everyone has their laptop out and you’re not the one speaking when you have to leave, you could pick a colleague to message with ‘bio break, back soon’ or whatever (ideally a trusted colleague to whom you’ve made some kind of explanation/preparation in advance). Then if it comes to your agenda item or whatever while you’re gone, they can say “Lucinda let me know that she needed to step out for a minute, let’s skip to item 4 and circle back.” That way you’re not just wordlessly disappearing (which I think is also fine if needed, you’re a grownup, no one will assume that you just decided to rage quit mid-meeting) but also not having to interrupt and find the perfect wording.

  30. Alan*

    I also have IBS and I’ve had to duck out of meetings. If I’m not leading, I just leave. If I am, I just say I’ll be right back. Occasionally I’ll hold my phone up like I just got a call/text and say “Emergency” before I make a run for it :-). That said, and I hope this isn’t inappropriate, but when I’m having a flare-up now I’ll take peppermint pills (on an empty stomach) and they really seem to help. As much as any of the prescribed meds actually. YMMV.

  31. Spicy Tuna*

    There are two types of people in this world. People who are squicked out by bathroom stuff and people who are not. Within the group of people who are not, there is a subset that think bathroom stuff is hilarious (not in a mean way) and will absolutely understand and make light of anything toilet related.

    The reality is that we spend a lot of time at work and people need to use the bathroom, sometimes urgently. It’s a fact of life.

    I’ll share something that happened to a friend of my years and years and years ago right after we graduated from college. He was on his way to a job interview, in a suit, in NYC. He suddenly, URGENTLY, needed to use a bathroom. He ducked into a Chinese restaurant. The owner / manager said, “bathrooms only for customers” so he yelled, “I’ll take an eggroll” as he dashed up the stairs to the tiny, single person restroom. He didn’t make it. Explosive diarrhea all over the bathroom and his interview suit. He had to rinse the suit out in the sink, then clean the entire bathroom as best as he could using TP and paper towels, all while the manager was banging on the door and yelling at him. He ended up tipping something like $50 on a $1 eggroll. I don’t know if he just skipped the interview entirely or tried to reschedule it.

  32. BecauseHigherEd*

    Can you just privately tell your boss and/or HR that you have a medical thing that sometimes means you can’t stay sitting for long periods or may mean you need to excuse yourself every now and then? I’ve had colleagues and students (working in higher ed) in those situations and often they would discreetly disclose that there was a medical thing and that would discreetly be shared with anyone who needed to know (even just a, “Hey, this person has a medical thing and may need to step out for a minute or two–nothing to worry about, just wanted you to be aware.”)

  33. Spicy Tuna*

    One other item to put your mind at ease. It was our crunch time at work and my boss needed a colonoscopy for an urgent medical issue he was having – if he had any lattitude, he would not have scheduled it during that time. He was prepping for it while working from home (this was WAY pre-Covid when WFH wasn’t really a thing). We were on a call with him and he kept dropping off to use the toilet. Completely no big deal. We all understood.

    He needed to have surgery to remove a foot of his colon. When he came back from his surgery, we were still in crunch time. We had all eaten dinner at the office and then were meeting with him to review some stuff. In the middle of our meeting, he just stood up and said, “be right back”. When he came back, he said, “sorry guys, I’m not looking to test out my new plumbing connections!”

    The point is, if you act like your IBS is something shameful and embarrassing, it will be. If you act like it’s a totally normal part of life, which it is, then it will not be anything other than… a normal part of life.

  34. LinesInTheSand*

    I’m someone who gets to sit through these meetings where the facilitators have to step out occasionally and here’s what I’ve found to be really helpful to me as an attendee.

    1. At the top of the meeting, the facilitator owns it up front. “I apologize in advance, I’m firefighting today and I may have to step out unexpectedly.” We maintained a live service so it was totally plausible that there was some sort of production incident and I never thought anything of it.
    2. Run the meeting well in general. Have an agenda, publish it in advance, put it on the whiteboard in the conference room when you start. Do the same with the explicit goals for the meeting. It’s more work in advance but it means the attendees aren’t relying on you nearly so much during the meeting itself. As a bonus, if your office’s meeting culture is generally a little sloppy, people will love you for being up front and respecting their time.

    1. LinesInTheSand*

      The only times I did get annoyed were when I felt like the facilitator was so distracted that they couldn’t give the meeting the attention it needed and I was being asked to give up my time for what felt like no reason. This was in a culture where everyone had too many number one priorities and a common complaint was “why should I put effort into this initiative when the company can’t fund it well enough to succeed?”

      All of which is to say, you will have to make some judgement calls at times and cancel meetings that are in progress because you’re unable to give them the attention they need. It happens, and I’d rather have my time back than sit bored in a conference room.

  35. HonorBox*

    Agreeing with everyone who suggested someone you can deputize to take over in your absence. That will help a lot. You needn’t be explicit with them about why you might need to step away, but just give them a heads up that you might…

    Also, if it is possible – and it won’t always be possible, I know – design your agenda so that there are items interspersed that either someone else is reporting on or that require a bit of discussion. You can sort of adjust on the fly and excuse yourself after moving to the next item. Even if you can’t seamlessly work in a transition, simply interjecting and excusing yourself while directing everyone to next tackle the agenda item(s) that don’t require your direct leadership, that gives you some opportunity to step out.

  36. Sandi*

    I have a coworker who often disappears out of a meeting for a few minutes for ‘washroom issues’ (I don’t know specifics, just that I’ve noticed him going to the washroom more often than other coworkers) and no one cares. It’s much easier because he’s rarely running them, but even then it should be easy for you to have a deputy. He mentioned at some point early on that it was a medical issue (no more, no less) and everyone politely ignores his disappearances when he says that he’ll be right back.

  37. anxiousGrad*

    What should you do if you end up late to a meeting because of a bathroom situation? Especially a one-on-one? If I have a sudden need to go to the bathroom not too long before a meeting, I try to bring my phone with me so I could send an email, but what should it say?

    1. Keyboard Cowboy*

      I do this all the time – my company culture has meetings that run to time or over, and start pretty much on time, so sometimes I just need to go pee in between. A basic “Hey, I need a few minutes, should be there in 5” for 1:1s, or “I’ll be 5 minutes late, start without me” for meetings I’m not leading is fine. Communicating the lateness, especially for 1:1s, is the way to be respectful of your coworker’s time.

      From your coworker’s shoes: you’re in deep focus, you get a meeting reminder popup, you break the focus when you might have needed just a couple more minutes, and then your coworker doesn’t show up to 1:1 in the time you could have used to finish your task. That sucks. But if your coworker sent you an email or chat letting you know you had a little more time, there you go, you sent your code review or email or finished your spreadsheet formula or whatever, everyone’s happy.

    2. Annie*

      This is no big deal (although the earlier you can alert someone you’ll be late, the better).

      Depending on who you’re meeting (and whether or not a white lie is warranted or appropriate):
      -“Hi all – I’m running a few minutes late. Please get started without me.”
      -“Hi Jane – my 9:30 ran over by a few minutes. My apologies! Will jump on by 10:05 or so.”
      -“Hi all – just wrapping up another matter. Will be there in five.”
      -“Hi Steve – I’m running between meetings today! Just taking a moment to run to the washroom and grab a glass of water, and then will hop on. Sorry to make you wait!”

      The white lie is usually not necessary and probably not something you want to get in the habit of, but if you feel compelled and it’s an external client or vender that you want to stay tippy-top professional with, sometimes it can feel more comfortable to feel like you’re giving them a reason.

  38. anononon*

    The King of England has just told everyone about his enlarged prostate, so I think the rest of of us are probably good to go on ‘I’m just popping to the loo, back in 2…’

  39. higheredadmin*

    To take a different tack – as a project lead, you can also look and see if you *need* all of those meetings. Is there a shared workspace for your team, can you provide status updates virtually etc. I realize not the solution for every type of project, but most staff will be beyond grateful to have some time back in their day from meetings and be able to focus on their project tasks. For me, a meeting free day is a delight to be cherished, and also usually intensely productive as I can get into a flow with my work.

    1. Letter writer*

      Unfortunately I already follow the least-possible approach to meetings myself so if it *can* be an email or slack, it is.
      I work cross functionally at a F100 now as a SME for a system that performs finance functions. My background is finance but I’m knowledgeable in these systems. So… often if we’re in a call it’s because I need someone from the systems side to understand detailed accounting requirements. Or I need someone from accounting to walk me through their entire task so I can automate the process. Neither of these lends itself to emails.
      But there’s great advice I’m getting here and I feel much calmer now that I realize probably most people *aren’t* thinking “Gee I wonder what she up to being gone in the middle of a meeting. Must be stinking up the bathroom!”.
      Since many of our meetings are small and system/process heavy I think the two best pieces of advice here are just “Don’t act like it’s a huge deal to be human” and also “designate a second so nothing has to grind to a halt”.

  40. Keyboard Cowboy*

    I feel like a lot of commenters, and Alison, aren’t appreciating the difference between attending the meeting and running the meeting. It’s definitely harder to duck out for a few minutes when you’re running it. Others have mentioned a deputy, which is great – I think that’s half the equation. You need 1) someone to drive the agenda/cut off sidetracking in your absence and 2) someone taking notes so you can catch up and not be lost when you return. Definitely agree that arranging (1) ahead of the meeting is a good idea, but it’s not always totally necessary; (2) really shouldn’t be you if you’re driving the discussion anyways.

    For multi-hour meetings, I really like the suggestion others had to just use it as an excuse to call a 10-15 minute break. Everyone wants a break, it’ll get you a reputation as someone who’s conscientious of others’ comfort and humanity.

  41. Have you had enough water today?*

    My GM has crohns. He let us all know up front that if he suddenly walks out of a meeting this is why & to please carry on in his absence. By letting me know I was also able to make some accommodations for him by way of having his own dedicated bathroom so he knows he will have immediate access to the toilet whenever required. I imagine it could be stressful if you have a GI disruption & the toilets are all occupied.

  42. Festively Dressed Earl*

    LW, are you always the one running meetings?

    My aunt has IBS, and in situations where she knows she won’t have quick or easy toilet access (e.g. on a long flight), she’ll take Imodium even though it’s not a great idea long term. Then she’ll plan to stay in and near a bathroom for the next day or two afterwards. If you’re in meetings a lot but not always running/presenting them, you could try taking meds when you’re presenting and sitting near the door when you’re not.

  43. FellowSufferer*

    Just in case you have not already tried it, I suffer from the same condition and have had a lot of luck with enteric peppermint oil capsules! It’s peppermint oil, formulated into gel capsules with a special delayed-release coating that keeps the oil from being released until the pill reaches your intestines. It’s not a cure-all, but it’s significantly reduced the frequency and my severity of my symptoms. There’s a lot of (legitimate, peer-reviewed) medical literature about it, so it might be worth asking your doctor about. I hope this isn’t condescending or an overreach, but I didn’t know about the research on peppermint oil in IBS until recently and it’s helped me immensely, so I’m spreading the word.

  44. Matt*

    My direct report has a bladder issue, and needs to pee very frequently. It does not bother me in the least, and I can be very accommodating. We had to have an important meeting once when she was having a severe flare and I just started the meeting by saying “apologies in advance but coworker may need to look after something urgent during the meeting and may need to step out for a few minutes, but we won’t let it disrupt us and she will be right back” There was no drama and a very happy co-worker.

  45. Our Lady of Shining Eels*

    Seconding all the “well-planned agendas” and having someone ready to step in.

    Also, if your flare ups also leave you feeling … raw … little individually wrapped bathroom wipes have been a lifesaver for me. I pop one or two in my pocket before work, and it helps with whatever horrors may happen. Also, if you fear you may have an accident at work, keeping a second set of clothes (or at least a few pairs of underpants) in a drawer or locker means that’s one less thing to stress about.

  46. Harper*

    OP, you have my sympathy, truly. IBS sucks. I’ve been in a pattern for several years now of about one day per week of these urgent attacks. And it’s never just a quick trip to the restroom. It’s usually 4-5 trips over the course of an hour or 2 until there’s literally nothing left, then I feel fine.

    Honestly, if I can tell it’s going to be one of those days and I have a meeting coming up that I have to lead, I reschedule it with the explanation that I had a sudden emergency or that something urgent came up. Also, usually (not always) my attacks tend to happen in the morning, so I may be less likely to have an episode during afternoon meetings. I don’t love medicating myself because it just feels like delaying the inevitable, but Pepto Bismol is my go-to for settling things down and slowing/halting attacks. I keep it nearby at all times in multiple forms (chews, liquid).

    If I need to leave a meeting I’m not leading, I just get up silently and walk out, or whisper, “excuse me” and walk out, then return later. No one bats an eye, and I just hope I’m able to limit it to once per meeting. If I can tell I’m going to have a lengthy episode, I may just not return to the meeting, then tell someone later that I got an urgent call or that I was feeling sick. I wish there were better ways to handle this.

  47. GreenDoor*

    Good grief! If you are in meetings that can go from 4-8 hours you will most definitely not be the only one that needs to duck out to go to the bathroom, have a cigarette, eat something, take meds, just get some fresh air, grab a printout, or even walk away and count to 10 because something in the meeting made you mad. Reasonable colleagues won’t even think twice. Just try and secure the seat closest to the door for those gotta-go-absolutely-right-now moments and otherwise, put it out of your mind!

    1. Letter writer*

      Hah! I should have been clearer, but it’s more like back to back hour long meetings for 4-8 hours/day, each day. Meeting with other SMEs, systems folks, double booked meetings, sitting in on some as the note taker while listening on another for when they get to your particular area of expertise… and if I could predict when this would happen then I’d just schedule meeting breaks but the other day I started a meeting just fine at 11, then by 11:15 knew something was up, then 11:20 had non-negotiable needs. (“internet trouble”). 20 minutes into a 50 minute meeting. But I’ll be taking advice here, and I’ll try to be more open to just saying “need to reschedule” also.

  48. nodramazone*

    So glad to see this question here and the responses. I too suffer from these issues, for different reasons–I had a large part of my colon removed due to colon cancer and it causes some permanent changes that can be difficult to manage–including these urgent and persistent calls of nature and unfortunately occasional flatulence that I simply cannot delay. It’s really difficult to manage and embarrassing. I have shared with a few colleagues who have been wonderful–but I lead a lot of meetings and it has been hard to manage. Thanks for all the good tips!

  49. nodramazone*

    I too suffer from this issue due to having a large part of my colon removed for colon cancer. It’s quite embarrassing and difficult. My problem also unfortunately can cause unexpected odors as well which I can’t control–the surgery removed a lot of the musculature that normal people use to manage these things .–so I just do not have a lot of control. I opted not to have a permanent ostomy, but sometimes I wonder if that might have been a better choice when I have these problems.

    I’ve shared with a few close colleagues who are supportive, but I still feel extremely apprehensive about it.

    I appreciate the tips.

    1. Letter writer*

      Glad you’re getting good tips too. And I hope you’re doing well/on the mend from that C-word that is always scary, no matter the prognosis. Best wishes!

  50. lilsheba*

    I would just say “be right back” and for the love of satan don’t add anything else like “nature calls” no one needs to know it’s a bathroom break. Too many people announce that and it’s not needed.

  51. LibraryIT*

    As a fellow IBS sufferer, it has been nice to hear a lot of these suggestions. When I’m having a flare-up and am going to be in a meeting, I try to do things to mitigate ahead of time – not eat much, use the bathroom a couple times before the meeting starts, etc. I think with a group of people you see all the time, a simple explanation of “I have some chronic stomach issues. I may have to slip out of meetings occasionally. Always feel free to continue on without me.”
    Now for my favorite advice in a group of people you aren’t close to/won’t see a lot, when you’re not running the meeting, fake an emergency phone call. Doesn’t work well with daily colleagues, but in a conference-like setting when you’ve already run to the bathroom once, a pretend phone call is great cover for a second break!

  52. boof*

    My favorite idea is having someone else who you trust and can continue the meeting if you need to duck out – my less favorite option is somehow giving folks a heads up that they should bring stuff to do in case you need to duck out. I do think it’s going to be an issue if you semi-regularly leave a meeting you’re leading for 10-20 min with no real explanation and people notice they may be left twiddling their thumbs randomly (by their perspective). No you absolutely should not have to fill everyone in on your bodily details nor would they want that but some acknowledgement that you value their time and you may have to leave for 10 min unexpectedly so to bring something to do would be the other fallback. If meetings are all zoom that is a bit easier because I think then you can hopefully just say “I need to step out for 10 min!” and folks know they can switch gears for a bit until they hear you back. But a second in command would be way easier for everyone I think.
    And if you’re not leading the meeting then it mostly doesn’t matter but still worth having a “buddy” who can let you know what you missed or if you might be called on unpredictably let folks know you’ll be right back and to save it for later in the meeting

  53. H.Regalis*

    I have IBS and I don’t envy you. It sucks! If you’re just in the meeting and not running it, I think you’re okay to either be like, “Excuse me a moment” and haul ass to the bathroom, or just not say anything. If you’re running it, I think you can still excuse yourself and come back. My partner teaches in higher ed and he’s had to do that a couple of times during lectures. It’s not a big deal.

    If you work with any overly-precious dingdongs who are horrified that you are using the bathroom/say you need to go use the bathroom, mentally tell them to fuck off. They’re the ones making stuff weird. People who freak out over bodily functions are ridiculous.

  54. el l*

    People can keep talking in your absence if it’s 5 minutes or less. Or, if it’s a virtual meeting, they can work on their computers.

    Happens all the time. Despite best efforts, happens to everyone at least once per year. Nothing to worry about.

  55. Mrs. Hawiggins*

    I agree with having someone step in if you have to depart. It shows preparedness, competence within you AND your team, and honestly I’ve seen people leave for 20 minutes during a meeting that wouldn’t ordinarily be left… We always think it’s an emergency phone call not a dreaded trip to the bathroom. IBS flares are no joke, and, IBS itself seems to know just exactly when to show up. If questioned a “sorry I had an emergency,” has never gone beyond that with my group. And I work at a place, fortunately, that responds, “Hope you’re ok.”

  56. Nichole*

    Man I feel you. I have ibs and I used to be really embarrassed about it but now not so much. A few years ago I had a client appointment that I missed and had to have a partner cover because of said symptoms. A forgiving assistant communicated through the door and the appointment was handled by said partner. People are more forgiving than we sometimes think. Someone also ran out and got me some Imodium.

  57. Claudia*

    Not advice specific to meetings, but a couple of things from someone who’s been dealing with IBS for decades. One, IBS is covered by the ADA so you can get accommodations at work and FMLA protection (2 separate things). Two, a surprising number of doctors don’t tell their patients about meds that can help, such as dicyclomine and nortriptyline. Workplace protections and medications have kept me working for years, thankfully.

    1. Olivia*

      Alison, this comment needs to be higher and needed to be a part of your response, especially given that the letter-writer has regular symptoms that are interrupting their normal work. Their symptoms and experience aren’t going away and aren’t temporary.

      LW – even if in previous roles you didn’t need an accommodation, given the frequency of meetings and the frequency of your symptoms, I think it would be worth your time and effort to request one at this new job. It will help protect your manager’s perception of your work, and provide you job protections that could be necessary.

      Some of the other comments here can assist with the optics of excusing yourself with meeting attendees, but start with the accommodation request!

  58. Mmm.*

    I was a teacher and had issues like this. I legit said “be right back, don’t burn the place down!”

    I’m sure you’ve exhausted all medical options, but what about some “behavioral” (I hate that word) ones? Like, keep track of when these things happen versus the last time you ate or what you had to drink that day. I hesitate on food diaries because that’s part of my eating disorder, but noting things like time between eating and an attack or a connection with water or coffee amount could help. Hell, I sometimes found that shower temperature could affect me. If you can find a connection, as much as it sucks, maybe you could plan meeting days accordingly.

    (I’m saying all this past tense because I had a hysterectomy, and it solved the issue for some reason. No one knows why. But maybe organ removal would work for you, too! )

  59. Keymaster in absentia*

    Not digestive but have had another condition cause a ‘I gotta leave right now’ scenario at work and in meetings I’m running I use either:

    “Sorry, back in X minutes, got to see to something urgent, feel free to take a break!” if nobody can cover for me.

    “Sorry, Z can you cover this for X minutes? I got to see to something urgent” if someone can.

  60. Over Analyst*

    No more advice, just wanted to chime in to say I too have IBS-type symptoms, and I too have used the “drop off suddenly then blame internet problems” technique.

  61. I'm just here for the cats!*

    So I’m a day late to this since I was too busy to read yesterday. But as someone with IBS I know the feeling, although I’ve never had to duck out while holding a meeting.

    I would add that you might want to have someone as a backup that can continue the meeting, that way if your gone for more than a few minutes (which is likely with IBS) then that person can continue on with directing the meeting so everyone is not just sitting there wondering whats up.

  62. TheGiftThatKeepsGiving*

    This is my life – post cancer “new normal”. IBS and limited bowel / urinary control. Not likely to improve any further, 4 years out. But far better than the alternative, of course.

    It really does have an impact on productivity and breaks up your day continuously. VERY inconvenient. When you have to go, you HAVE to go. Limited warning time. Heck, even getting up from sitting down generally means I MUST get to a toilet, STAT!! I have toilet paper and baby wipes that live in my car, and I have needed them when I couldn’t get to a bathroom (bears are not the only things that go in the woods, let’s just say.)

    Thankfully, I work from home. I don’t know how I would function in an office. As it is, sometimes I have to put myself on hold for video meetings. I generally make a point of going to the bathroom before meetings whenever possible. That works for #1, but #2 is harder to predict. And what people don’t seem to understand is that it’s not just a 2 minute situation. It might take 10 minutes or more, depending on how bad it all is (plus, getting cleaned up). TMI, sorry.

    If I were working in an office, I would probably need to disclose to HR that I need a medical accommodation to not be considered shirking by going to the bathroom all the time / unpredictably, and would have to discuss with my manager that I need to be able to leave meetings when I need to leave. I would need to be seated near a bathroom, as well.

  63. Chronically Ill*

    I’m chronically ill and fairly often have to miss work/meetings with little notice.

    The best way to handle this is to be prepared – meetings you run should have published agendas – write down what decisions need to be made, who needs to approve, and have a group space for action items so if you need to step out, everyone knows what the plan is and someone else can easily record outcomes. (all meetings should have this, but you know your meetings may have to run themselves without warning, so prepare for that.)

    Meetings you attend you should also be prepared for and be able to share your position/comments in writing if needed. If its a bad day, snag the meeting runner and ask if you can do your part of the meeting at a specific point and warn them that you may have to step in and out.

    If you can’t be totally reliably present, be utterly transparent about the status of everything so people can self serve answers to questions. This may mean building and maintaining more communications infrastructure for your own work – if your flare ups are typically short, you may not need as much here, but my condition means I can miss a day or two without warning, so I always have to be prepared to miss a day or two.

    If you are prepared for your work to run smoothly for the interruptions you know might happen, no one else will care. People care when their work gets impacted, so don’t let it impact their work.

    Then, if the moment comes, you say “I need to step out, I’ll be right back, see if you can get to a resolution on Topic A and move on if you do.” If its a standing meeting, use Alison’s language so people you deal with frequently won’t get concerned.

    Long meetings are their own universe, you’re not the only one who is going to need a break or need to step out, just do it. (Again, if its a particularly bad day, maybe warn the meeting runner so they know you aren’t just trying to escape whatever was deemed important enough to need 6 hours of people in a meeting.) If you’re running the long meeting, the need for organization, agenda, time keeping, etc is tripled, and consider setting up a co-host who can step in as needed.

    We’re all humans with bodies, those bodies have needs, take care of them with the minimum of fuss and impact on others and basically no one will care.

  64. IBS*

    It took me 10 years to figure this out for myself, so I understand if people are skeptical. But I do feel like some people who think they have IBS might simply have an intolerance to some kind of food, or foods, but don’t know it yet. Or are not willing to believe it. I have a list of particular foods that do it for me. The biggest culprit is milk. Figuring that out eliminated about 70% of my stomach issues. The rest is odd things like the liquid egg they put in some foods, raisins, soy, etc. I figured this out my tracking my food and my symptoms. I hope that people will do this to figure out what their problems might me.

    1. Best of luck to you*

      There’s even a University in Australia, Monash University, that studies IBS, and has a great app that can help with figuring out the food aspect of things!

      LW, my heart goes out to you! I think that there are some great suggestions above, and am hoping that you are able to find the approaches that work best for you. Good luck!!!

  65. SubwayFan*

    I have always called it my “nervous stomach”… when I get stressed out my stomach revolts.

    If it happens in a meeting, I often look at my phone and say “Sorry, emergency call, I need to take this” and step out.
    If I’m on a remote call, I just say, excuse me for one minute, I’ll be right back. Then shut off camera/mic.

    I work in communications so my job has lots of interruptions by design, and I just let people think I’m stepping out because of that.

    Things I have done to help with my stomach:
    – Fiber capsules. If I take 3 in the morning, and drink water with them, it calms things considerably.
    – Breathing exercises. If I focus on my breathing, in/out, I can distract myself away from my stomach, usually long enough to give me time to get to a bathroom.

    – Keep a spare pair of underwear tucked in my desk drawer with wet wipes in a little travel pouch. If the worst happens, I can grab that and dash to the restroom to tidy up.

  66. Ordinary person*

    I worked with someone who used to leave meetings for restroom-related reasons. He just said, “Excuse me, I’ll be back soon.” It was fine and we didn’t think anything of it. (What was not fine was the time he shouted at someone and stormed out of the meeting.)
    Please don’t feel bad about having to excuse yourself.

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