Men and women have been power-starting their work day with coffee since the 1600s when the new settlers of New Amsterdam began to drink it instead of tea.
We chug it steaming hot from paper cups on commuter trains, we sip it from insulated thermoses while speeding along the highway, we wait on line to get it iced or with a shot of espresso, we wait impatiently for the office Keurig machine to spray it into a ceramic mug.
Whether you prefer it percolated, instant, pour over, French-pressed, fair trade, light and sweet, Venti or hazelnut, for most the result is predictable: A quick rush of energy followed by another another rush–to the bathroom.
In brief: For many (although not for everyone), the caffeine in coffee stimulates muscles in the colon causing peristalsis, the contraction and relaxation of intestinal muscles that causes bowel movements.
For those who suffer from workplace bathroom anxiety (I count myself among them), the morning cup of coffee is a strange ritual that begins with pleasure and then devolves into shame, anxiety, and fear. The gut- and sphincter-clenching, nerve-wracking need to finish one’s personal business before someone else enters the bathroom, the obsession with one’s shoes being recognized, irrational fear that our coworkers will giggle and whisper or worse, pointing and laughing.
We’re steeped in shame that the world will know that behind our professional exteriors, our carefully chosen clothing, makeup and calculated demeanors, we are foul and gross. We can calculate the timing of a tweet, the wording of an email, the delivery of a presentation–why can’t our insides emit pleasant, predictable content? Like Upworthy.
At the beginning of my career as a journalist, I worked in women’s magazines, where the very intake of food was fraught with self-hatred and high-stakes personal bargaining. In my days as a freelance and full-time employee at Marie Claire, Redbook and Glamour magazines, I can tell you with absolute certainty that I never once heard a woman execute a bowel movement while I was in the bathroom with her. At the time, I believe I associated this with extreme will-power.
These women who wore Bottega Veneta bags that matched their highlights simply did not ingest anything with enough calories to result in something so base and common as fecal matter. Now I realize that those women were most certainly cowering in their stalls, waiting for me to leave so that they could go in peace.
We all have our tricks to avoid having to excrete at work. Friends and colleagues have admitted using the restroom on other floors, running to the Starbucks across the street (oh, the irony), fleeing the bathroom if someone comes in and throwing toilet paper into the bowl first to muffle any grotesque sounds. Others will sit on the toilet, drenched in sweat, unable relieve themselves until they’re sure there’s no one else around. Our most basic functions reveal us to be human and therefore fallible and ultimately vulnerable to disgust and humiliation.
For those with extreme bathroom anxiety, there can be professional consequences. Some people will ruminate on the subject because they are so anxious about it, Nick Hazan, the author of Psychology of the Bathroom told Fast Company. “Anything that distracts and discomforts workers can make them less productive.”
When I worked for the publishing company Condé Nast, at a women’s magazine a few floors away from where The Devil Wears Prada was set, I would use the ladies bathroom at Cargo, a now-defunct men’s magazine. For a few weeks, it was an oasis–a low-to-no traffic safe haven for me to relieve myself and hide from my shame that I was not as glamorous as my colleagues and was perhaps not suited to a life in women’s magazines. Eventually, due to my professional and digestive problems, I left the world of women’s magazines. Looking back, the two are absolutely linked, in professional and personal disgust.
There are reams of research about how people interact with public restrooms, yet there’s precious little on how people poop in the workplace, the most oft-used and public of bathrooms, says Hazan. Considering how many people I’ve spoken to who have expressed moderate to severe bathroom anxiety (one friend admitted to me that he took another job because he couldn’t deal with using the bathroom near his boss’s office), it might be a topic for Human Resources to include in exit interviews.
In short, if companies want to create a more pleasant place for their employees, they should consider single-person bathrooms instead of the cavern of stalls. Why spend the money on decent coffee if half your staff is afraid to drink it?