A recent study found that 32% of people with eating disorders felt their workplace stigmatized them because of their eating disorder
After a year in hospital recovering from anorexia, I knew what I needed to do to stay well. I knew how much to eat each day; I knew how to try to quiet that voice in my head. I was as equipped as I could be to leave hospital at that moment in time, but what I wasn’t equipped for was navigating new situations; those situations where I felt judged on what I was eating, or where my routine around food and exercise felt slightly interfered with.
Who would have thought when you work full-time it would throw up yet another obstacle to recovery?
Those things that others were tackling as they started a new career were things which, for me, felt so tough at times. I began to overthink everything from how much I was valued at work, to networking lunches, to feeling convinced people were judging my food intake.
Here are a few main issues that I have in my professional working life and the impact it had on my mental health when I used to work in an office environment:
- Knowing what to wear.Some mornings I get up and try on my entire wardrobe and feel huge. It is these days when I often feel completely disheartened about going to work. I am now in a place where I can still go to work on my ‘fat’ days and switch off from these feelings but when I first started working it was much harder. It was hard having those days but not being able to just pull on my trackies, and more often than not, I would turn up to work late and flustered. You might think this is a vanity thing or just something that happens to so many, but for someone who has had anorexia, it is a whole lot worse.
- Events where food is involved.Triangular sandwiches; it’s slightly funny that I find these so difficult. But do be aware of those you work with who might have issues around food. Things that you might not bat an eyelid at, like eating out for client meetings, can be tough for someone with an eating disorder.
- Flexibility around work.This can be anything from the lack of flexibility if you have a bad morning, to the side-effects of medication but still having to make it to the workplace on time.
The fact is, managing a condition which isn’t chronic is tough, especially when it is invisible.
Being in recovery from anorexia didn’t make me weak – I’m actually a stronger person for managing it and not letting it make me unwell. I was good at my job and it didn’t interfere a huge amount but there were things that could have been done to help. It is important to remember that I chose not to disclose my anorexia, due mostly to the fear of judgement and stigma that mental health problems attract. So, here are some things you can do whether you do or don’t know about your colleagues.
- Don’t comment on people’s food choices. I eat regularly throughout the day because that is what works for my brain. When I worked in an office, the number of people who would comment, “you are always eating” or “why are you having a salad for lunch?” Oh my god, it was so annoying! I felt the need to constantly make excuses for my food choices. Telling someone who is in recovery from anorexia that they are eating too much is highly unhelpful!
- Think about where you do team lunches. When I first started working in an office, I learned to accept that team lunches would happen, but this didn’t make attending them any easier. Instead, I felt left in the lurch a lot of the time. I would either pull out, turn up late or end up sitting there, constantly stressing. What would have helped is having a choice of where to go or seeing a menu beforehand. Simple, small changes really do make a huge difference.
- Don’t constantly chat about diets and calories.This is just annoying! I was lucky that I was in a place in my recovery where I could manage these conversations but for many others it can be a trigger. I am not saying don’t talk about this but please be mindful of those around you.
- If someone chooses not to have cake, don’t quiz them about it. The number of excuses I came up with about why I didn’t always have a slice of cake – it became ridiculous! I don’t know why people always feel the need to pick up on this; please try not to.
- Normalise conversations around mental health. Whether through blogs, awareness days, or even encouraging more open dialogue we all have a role to play in tackling the stigma associated with mental health.
Remember that just because someone looks okay, it doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling.
Eating disorders really do come in all shapes and sizes; just because someone looks okay, it doesn’t mean they are okay. If you are worried about someone you work with, try to talk to them, perhaps flag it up to HR, but, above all, be aware that the eating disorder is a secondary symptom of how they are feeling.