Medical Examiner

Pooping at the Office Again Is Going to Be Terrible

No one likes going in a public restroom—but especially not those of us with fussy bowels.

Poop emoji frowning in dismay
Photo illustration by Slate. Image by photosynthesis/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Say what you will about working from home, but for most of us, there’s one clear benefit: It’s a better bathroom situation. Especially when it comes to pooping.

Maybe your office bathroom has stall doors that reach the knees, or it’s silent as a grave, or there’s no ventilation, or the toilet is constantly threatening to leak all over the floor. Your boss might come in and make conversation. You—or someone you spend the day typing next to—might stink the whole place up. Your home bathroom is private (or at least shared by far fewer people). The only smells and noises to contend with are your own.

Advertisement

This is about far more than comfort and dignity. Office life as a whole is not conducive to good gastrointestinal health. Stressful commutes, less physical activity, copious office junk food, and, yes, uncomfortable bathrooms can translate to an imbalanced digestive system. Add confounding factors like irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, pregnancy, gluten intolerance, and other conditions that cause GI upset, and you have a recipe for lower-body misery. Now, after a year-plus of working from home, many of us and our guts will be returning to offices. Anyone who’s ever had vacation constipation might be reasonably braced for the transition. Those of us with digestive disorders, though, are downright apprehensive about it.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

“Going to the bathroom at home is a million times more relaxed than in an office setting,” says Sammy Nickalls, a 29-year-old incoming graduate student based in Pennsylvania. Nickalls has irritable bowel syndrome, a common digestive disorder that causes gastrointestinal discomfort and irregular bowel movements, including diarrhea, constipation, or both. She says that when she worked in an office, she’d breathe a sigh of relief whenever the single-toilet private bathroom was free. “I also suspect that a few employers would judge how long I would take in the bathroom—especially when I waited for co-workers to clear out—and how many times I would go to the bathroom because they thought I was trying to get out of doing work.” She’s dreading having to use public restrooms again and says she’ll probably try to poop before she has to leave for classes.

Advertisement
Advertisement

“My biggest issue with 99 percent of public bathrooms is that they aren’t set up for privacy,” says Mark, a 49-year-old Kansas City–based production manager for an airport planning firm who requested that only his first name be used because he doesn’t “want the entire world to know I have butt issues.” Public restrooms “are created to get people in and out as fast as possible—basically, an assembly line for bodily functions—while being easy to clean,” Mark observes. “While this makes sense in, say, a sports stadium, I don’t understand that thought process in offices where people spend a third or more of their time.” He says simply having stall doors that extend to the floor would make a big difference, though he also notes that the private, single-toilet restrooms—which he calls “single shooters”—are even better. One survey found that 60 percent of respondents delay using a public restroom if they felt it wasn’t private enough, indicating that crappy conveyor belt–style restrooms frustrate and even harm far more people than those with bowel issues.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Privacy is critical, agrees 30-year-old Emily, who lives in the Bay Area and requested that only her first name be used because her co-workers don’t know about her irritable bowel symptoms, including diarrhea. “I feel much more comfortable without other people in hearing range for obvious reasons,” she says. But she has another gripe with public restrooms. “I wish there were squatty potties,” she says, referring to a stepping stool that sits in front of the toilet and elevates the knees in a “squatting” position to reduce the need to strain during bowel movements. It makes “the biggest difference,” she says.

New York–based Bridget, 29, whose name is changed because her employer doesn’t allow her to talk to reporters, says working from home has made a significant difference in her digestive comfort level in a few other ways. “I wear comfortable clothing that doesn’t feel tight when my gastro issues flare up,” she says, noting that her bowel movements are infrequent but that waiting is not a possibility when the urge arises. “I’m also able to eat meals that are easier on my stomach,” such as oatmeal, stir fries, and salads. “And most importantly, I can lie down on my couch if I get really bloated and start to feel nauseous.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Food in particular can have a big impact on our digestive health, says Aline Charabaty, the assistant director of clinical gastroenterology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “What I’ve noticed in my patients is that they tell me that when they’ve been cooking at home and selecting the ingredients, they feel better.” This holds true even among her patients who have gained weight, which she says she has during the pandemic. We commonly think of extra pounds as a sign of poor health, but they can be the result of nourishing our bodies—and helping our guts function—properly. Maybe you’re eating more homemade banana bread, but you’re also less likely to skip meals because you forgot to bring something to the office, Charabaty says. Without higher-ups eyeing you from across the open office plan, you have more time to sit and enjoy the food you’ve prepared rather than hoping the fiber-devoid protein bar you found at the bottom of your desk drawer will suffice for lunch.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Pre-pandemic, Charabaty would have patients come to her trying to figure out why they’re constipated and experiencing digestive discomfort. “I’m like, ‘Well, you didn’t eat or drink anything all day, you know, right?’ … as opposed to when you’re home and you have your oatmeal in the morning, and at lunch you had your salad and you had some lean protein.” These foods are more calorie-rich than the office cupcake you ate for lunch, sure, but they’re also more nutritionally rich and better for your gastrointestinal health overall.

The drastic switch from working at home to commuting into the office could have dramatic implications for anyone’s poops. “Our digestive system works best when we have a predictable routine in terms of sleep schedules, eating schedules, bathroom habits,” says Sarah Kinsinger, the director of behavioral medicine for digestive health at Loyola University Medical Center. People with “normal” and healthy digestive systems can usually get back on track with a little bit of time readjusting to their new routines, she says, but those of us with bowels that are fussy even in the best of times will need much more care when we do return to the office. A change in routine “can cause an increase in symptoms if you have a chronic digestive disorder,” says Kinsinger.

Advertisement

Kinsinger urges employers to remain flexible with employees during the transition. Many of them will have anxiety, she says, and might be worried about how their digestive health is going to be affected by the change. This means allowing people who have gastrointestinal disorders or discomfort to work remotely, or possibly come into work late so they can take care of things before they commute in. Perhaps it’s too much to hope for bathroom redesigns that could make it easier on everyone to poop comfortably when they need to. In a perfect world, we’d all be returning to offices with stall doors that extend all the way to the floor and break rooms with couches, like the ladies lounges of yore, that could be restful places for people experiencing nausea and bloating.

But small graces can still make all the difference. For God’s sake, says Mark, “can we please get something other than 80-grit toilet paper?”

Advertisement