Does My Employee Have a Medical Problem or a Performance Problem?

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I have an employee who drinks a LOT of water – probably well over a gallon a day while she’s at work. This means that every 30 minutes she’s either in the bathroom, or filling her water glass. I’ve recommended combining these into her break or bringing a jug to keep at her desk, but then she’ll ask if that means I’m not going to allow her to go to the bathroom when she needs to.


We’re a health oriented company, so telling an employee they can’t drink as much water as they want kind of goes against our wellness ideals.
This person is struggling to get her work done and has a hard time focusing on her tasks, and I believe that the constant water/bathroom breaks have become an excuse to get away from her desk.
This person is also pregnant, but the water issue has been going on for months before she found out about the baby. It’s just gotten worse, because she’s now three months along and using that as another excuse for her constant bathroom breaks since the day after she took the test. It could be legitimate as I’ve never been pregnant, but the other moms in my department have clearly stated that they didn’t experience the bladder pressure until much later in their pregnancies. Yes, the rest of my team is noticing and commenting. But I’m not a doctor so I can’t diagnose this as a pregnancy-related symptom.
We’re a phone based department, so coverage is an issue.

I’ve been addressing the performance issues with her, but am afraid that if it gets to the point where we let her go, she’ll come back with some type of wild discrimination issue over not being able to go to the bathroom/drink water. I wouldn’t be surprised if she tried a pregnancy discrimina suit, though I have had other pregnant women in the department in the past where we were able to work out very successful plans to accommodate them reasonably – but they were still performing at a high level. I don’t want to go to our HR department without a good idea of what to do as they tend to be ineffective.

I have asked if there is a medical reason why she needs so much water. She says no, that she just likes water.

What would you advise? Am I missing something here? I’m stumped!

To read the answer click here: Does My Employee Have a Medical Problem or a Performance Problem?

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13 thoughts on “Does My Employee Have a Medical Problem or a Performance Problem?

  1. Wow. I find your answer to that question potentially troublesome as I'm a person who needs fairly frequent bathroom breaks (tiny bladder). When I've worked in call centers I've regularly exceeded my quotas (by a lot) and yet I'm up every half hour to pee. I'd hate to think that someone came to the same conclusions about me that you did about that letter, in spite of my excellent performance.

    1. I suspect the key here is ” I’ve regularly exceeded my quotas (by a lot)”

      Odds are, no one will notice how many breaks someone is taking if they’re getting their work done.

  2. Excellent answer, EHL. I would also make sure that if there are any other similarly poor performers on her team, they are also asked to step up to meet the expectations. The pregnant one does not need to feel singled out in this process.

  3. TheLabRat, did you miss the part where this employee was NOT meeting quota? If she were, frequent bathroom breaks would probably not be the issue that it is. It's not about bladder size, it's about performance.

  4. LabRat,

    I'm all about performance. If you're getting your job done I don't care if you do it in the bathroom. (Okay, I do care because it would freak everyone else out.)

    This person isn't performing and I believe (from the information given) that she's using water/pee breaks as an excuse not to get her work done.

  5. Someone who does something to excess is probably anxious, nervous, unsettled, in some way. This may very well be a health issue, although not physical. I assume the employee was a good one at one time or you probably never would have hired her. Sometimes life happens and people have difficulty coping and they don't even realize their life problems are spilling over into work in such an obvious way. I would address any performance issues, but not the water/bathroom issues, as I see a person's water consumption as irrelevant, and bathroom habits as personal.

  6. Undiagnosed diabetes insipidus is also a very real possibility. Unlike diabetes mellitus, in which high glucose levels drive extreme urine output, this condition is a disorder (lack) of the hormone ADH, antidiuretic hormone, that tells your kidneys to reabsorb and conserve water. Drinking and urinating very large amounts of fluid is classic. Of course, it's much more likely she is abusing the bathroom breaks and simply has a performance issue, but diabetes insipidus is a relatively uncommon and easily treatable possibility. The employee's manager can't do much about that anyway even if that is the cause, though, and should address the clear performance issue, as the Evil HR Lady says.

  7. Yes, this might be symptom of a medical problem, but managers should not be diagnosing anything. The best they can say is, "You might want to see a doctor about that."

    Coworkers can hassle someone a bit more about neglecting medical needs because they have no hire-fire authority over people.

    Being pregnant, she is undoubtedly having regular appointments with an OB or CNM, who will test for gestational diabetes. If she's not seeing a doctor/CNM during pregnancy, then any suggestion that she go see a doctor won't do any good, because she's dumb as a rock.

  8. EHL is correct. Any conversation needs to be focused on performance (what she's not getting done, etc.). That will negate any charge of discrimination, as long as the performance deficiencies of other employees are also routinely addressed. Reasonable accommodation does not include NOT performing the essential functions of the job.

  9. Cynical as this may sound, I would also want to know if the poor performer is bringing her cell phone with her on all these trips to the bathroom? Might not even be about bio breaks…might be more about talking on the phone.

  10. The quick answer to your question is that your employee has a performance problem, and it doesn’t matter if she has a medical problem unless or until SHE tells you that she does.

    For your own sake, please don’t have any further medical conversations with her, and don’t speculate about it with others in your office either. Even if she doesn’t have a condition, she could hit you with a perceived disability claim.

    As others said, focus on her performance and do what you need to do about that. At some point in her evaluation, she may try to blame a medical condition for her poor performance, and then you say, “If YOU believe you have a medical condition that is affecting your performance, you have the right to REQUEST an accommodation. Here is that policy. Now, let’s continue our conversation about your performance.

    The other thing you could focus on is her time away from her desk (regardless of the reason). If she is exceeding her allotted break times by a lot (e.g., employees get 1/2 hour for lunch and two 15 minute breaks, and she taking those breaks AND spending 5-10 minutes every hour to get water and use the restroom), you are likely to get some other employees complaining about why they don’t get to take extra time. It might be fine if she wants to spread those breaks over a day, but she can’t do both. No medical has to come into it unless she brings it up, and then you go to the magic accommodation phrase, “If YOU feel… here’s the policy.” Then tell her that you don’t really care how she uses her break times over the course of the day (if that’s true), but that the total time she is away from her desk should not exceed the time she is allotted, and that the rest of the time you are paying her to work. You have to be careful to hold others to the same standard though. If you do care about coverage, you should tell her that too. And of course… document every conversation.

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