What happens in the cubicles: How to deal with toilet anxiety at work

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Jul 10, 2023

What happens in the cubicles: How to deal with toilet anxiety at work

Whether it’s a fear of being overheard, or worries about when you’ll next be able to use the loo, toilet anxiety at work can throw off your day. But there are some things you can do to take back control

Truth be told, workplace toilets aren’t exactly glamorous. But while some are able to grin and bear it, others find using them comes with a great deal of stress and discomfort. If you fall into the latter category, where the idea of managing toilet trips at work fills you with dread, you may be experiencing toilet anxiety. But you’re not the only one who feels this way.

What is toilet anxiety?

Toilet anxiety, sometimes called ‘toilet phobia’, describes feelings of fear around using the toilet, which can include being worried about using a public toilet, concerns about feeling scrutinised by others while in the toilet, and anxiety around not being able to go to the toilet when you need it.

Anxiety UK provides a self-diagnosis tool, where, if you answer ‘yes’ to the following questions, it’s likely you are experiencing toilet anxiety:
In the past six months…

  • Have you experienced fear and concerns around going to the toilet?
  • Have your fears or concerns about going to the toilet influenced your daily life?
  • Have you found yourself anxious about the idea of others urinating in public places?
  • Has the idea of having to use a public toilet left you feeling anxious?
  • Have you found yourself worrying that others may overhear you when using the toilet?

It’s an anxiety that can begin at any stage of life, from childhood and into adulthood. For some, it may be triggered by other conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome or overactive bladder syndrome; for others, it could be linked to agoraphobia (a fear of being outside the home, in public and crowded places), OCD, or social anxiety – and sometimes it exists in isolation.

There isn’t a huge amount of conclusive research in the area, but The United Kingdom National Phobic Society suggests that around four million people in the UK are unable to urinate in public toilets due to anxiety.

Why is it worse at work?

In the workplace, all those fears around toilet anxiety – from not knowing when you might be able to go to the toilet to sitting in cubicles next to others – meet together to make a perfect storm.

You may have to juggle toilet trips with dealing with customers, sitting in meetings, or have to wait till designated break times before you can nip to the loo. Once you’re aware that there’s a restriction on when you might be able to go, those anxious thoughts can soon start to spiral out of control. And the thing with toilet anxiety is that it doesn’t need to be backed up by reality in order to flourish – you don’t have to ever experience having an accident in public, for example, in order to develop a fear of it happening.

If your worries are more tied up in being overheard or scrutinised by others, then the workplace can intensify this, too. Managing relationships with colleagues can be a challenge, and you may feel pressure to appear professional at all times – so bumping into each other in the toilet may make you feel uncomfortable. Of course, using the toilet is a natural thing – we all do it – but that fact is likely not enough to put your fears to rest.


How to manage toilet anxiety at work

First things first, if your toilet anxiety is affecting your everyday life – restricting your ability to use the toilet when you need it (including leading to constipation) or consuming your thoughts and altering your plans – it’s worth speaking to your GP or a mental health professional. They will be able to advise you on ways to cope with these feelings. But there are also some self-help steps you can take…

Use breathing techniques to relax

When we start to panic, our bodies go into flight-or-fight mode, which can lead us to breathe more quickly at the same time as our heart rates start to rise. Slow, deliberate breathing is an excellent way of counteracting these feelings of panic. So, whether you’re in the cubicle or experiencing a build-up of anxiety around other worries, try taking some deep breaths, or follow the pattern: breathe in for four counts, hold for four, and breathe out for eight.

Find a distraction

Sometimes, the longer we sit with an unsettling feeling, the more intense the anxiety can become. So, try to distract yourself from anxious thoughts with mental exercises. You could try to work out how many seconds are in six hours, count backwards from 100, try to recall every word of your favourite song, or name as many UK counties as possible. The key is to take your mind off those spiralling thoughts to stop them going any further.

Write down your thoughts

When they’re flying around our heads unchallenged, even the most irrational thoughts can seem convincing, and it’s not till we take those thoughts and put them into the real world that we can see them for what they are. So, take a pen and paper, and write down – in very simple words – what your fear is. Once you have that statement, expand on it.

Writing like this not only helps us to get things off our chest – something that can be a particular relief with toilet anxiety, as it can feel awkward to talk about – but it also helps us to see our problems from another perspective. And, once we’re there, we can start to build strategies around moving forward.

Speak to HR

While you work on managing your toilet anxiety, be that through some of the techniques listed here or with the help of a professional, it could be worth setting a time to speak to HR about what you’re going through, to see if there’s a way that you can make a plan that makes you feel more confident while at work. This may be, for example, allowing you to use the toilet outside of designated break times, or accessing toilets in more private parts of the building.

You can begin the conversation by asking your HR person about confidentiality. They may be able to guarantee a confidential conversation, or they may preface this by saying that they may need to disclose the information to others – your line manager, for example. Consider what you might be comfortable with, and go from there.

Closing the lid on it

As with any kind of anxiety, toilet anxiety will take some time and work before you get to a comfortable place. But, with the right support, and a consistent and self-compassionate attitude, there are routes you can take to making a trip to the loo just another regular occurrence.

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