Eating Disorder Awareness Week

TW: Eating disorders(!)

As well as being Hypermobility Awareness Week, it’s also Eating Disorder Awareness Week.  I hope you’ll all be feeling very aware by Friday!!

This year’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week is focused on eating disorders in the workplace and having had an unusually positive experience, I wanted to write about it.

Respondents to B-eat’s Eating Disorders at Work Survey 2015 reported:

  • More than 30% of people felt they were stigmatised or discriminated against because of their eating disorder at work
  • Nearly 2 in 5 people said their employers’ impact on their recovery was ‘unhelpful’
  • Two thirds of people were unable to access a formal or informal mechanism of support for their eating disorder at work
  • 38% told us they were forced to or felt they had to use their annual leave to attend medical appointments for their eating disorder
  • More than four out of five said they didn’t think or didn’t know whether their employers and colleagues were ‘informed’ about eating disorders.

My manager

I am very lucky to have an amazing, supportive manager who didn’t make me feel stigmatised, who did all he could to help me access treatment and who didn’t insist I use annual leave for appointments(1).

I am lucky in that I have been employed at the local authority in various jobs since 2010 with the same manager so he has seen me at my best and my worst. My anorexia has been on and off but the worst period was in the last three years. My friend and colleague helped me tell him shortly after I became ‘public’ about my depression and eating disorder. My manager was very supportive, he acknowledged that he wasn’t sure what the best thing to say or do was but that I should keep him informed and he’d do anything he could. Other than my manager and friend no one else at work has been aware of my illnesses.

After opening up to my manager, I had a long period where I was unable to access NHS help and my manager approached HR and Occupational Health to see what support could be provided through work. To start with I was told I was too complicated and to go to my GP. Again, my manager got involved and negotiated a 6 week plan of weekly sessions with a counsellor. Unfortunately this turned out to be mindfulness only, which at that stage in my illness wasn’t appropriate. Having run out of options, I was getting desperate and my manager actually wrote to my GP expressing his concerns. Shortly after that, I finally managed to get a GP to take me seriously (GPs and eating disorders is a topic for another day…).

When I finally started to get to the appropriate NHS support, my manager was clear that I could take all the time I needed for appointments including time after to ‘decompress’ before returning to work. He let me work at home when I needed to. We have an online messager system and he encouraged me to use it to let him know if I was having a bad day or needed anything (we are in an open plan office so telling him wasn’t easy and I find it harder to speak when I’m having trouble). He would always ask how I was doing and what support he could offer me and when I told him I found office diet talk overwhelming, he made an effort to redirect the conversations.

Knowing he was aware of the anorexia meant that he was able to give me more flexibility and more leeway than normal whilst still ensuring I was performing well enough (I was worried he’d not pick up anything that was wrong with my work for fear of upsetting me but he reassured me otherwise). He encouraged me to apply to access to work for support and when I hit walls with that process he helped as much as he could.

He has been incredibly supportive, encouraging and approachable throughout my illness. I am now applying for retirement through ill health (for physical health reasons) and he continues to offer support above and beyond what I would expect.

The rest of the organisation…

Generally, I’ve found that whilst my manager is amazing, the rest of the organisation have been less so. There seemed to be little in place to support staff with severe mental health issues, although there is support for mild depression, anxiety and stress. It was really important to me that I continued to work and I believe if I had had a different manager within the same organisation, I wouldn’t have been able to. I have spoken to other people with mild to moderate mental health issues in the organisation who’s managers have been far from supportive.

Other workplace issues have included the constant diet talk that comes with office working. On a number of occasions I’ve rushed from my desk to sit on the toilet floor crying. I find it so triggering to hear and especially things like the 5:2 diet where people were comparing starvation meals and I was there trying desperately to keep myself on track with recovery. There are also very few places where you can eat alone and I can’t leave the office because of a physical disability so generally end up eating at my desk. I’m ok with this most of the time but it can feel like what I eat is on show. I’ve missed Christmas meals, leaving meals and sat through incredibly anxious nights out with my anorexia as so often our work social activities include food and drinking, generally alcohol, all of which can be difficult for me.

  1. In terms of appointments, to start with I had fortnightly appointments which my CPN which required me to travel – by the time I’d got the bus there and back, I’d lost about 3 hours of my work day.  More recently I’ve been having weekly appointments with a psychologist which takes a morning out of my work day.  I don’t work full time but the only availability was on one of my work days.  It would have been well within his rights to insist I wait until I could go on my day off but he prioritised my recovery.