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Managing work and managing an eating disorder don't need to be in conflict

World Mental Health Day, taking place this year on October 10th, falls in the early Autumn - a time when many of us are leaving summer behind and looking towards new achievements and getting back into work or study. Appropriately then, the theme this year is ‘mental health in the workplace’. This is something which is relevant to us all. In the same way as we all rely on a level of physical health to take on employment, we also rely on our mental wellbeing too. Even though most people don’t have a diagnosable mental health problem, it’s not the flu or cold virus that account for the most missed days of work in the UK – it’s stress-related problems that most compromise productivity, along with symptoms of anxiety and depression. If you add in a condition such as an eating disorder, the challenges of staying mentally well at work can become even harder.

Just as managing work can be extremely difficult and stressful, living with an eating disorder can be highly taxing. Over the years when I suffered with anorexia, I was so preoccupied with avoiding food, compulsively exercising and abusing laxatives in order to lose weight that my eating disorder eventually became much more important and time-consuming than work. Bulimia was an equally demanding task-master. Both sapped me of time, energy, and my physical and mental health, to the point that I couldn’t sustain my job as a carer for the elderly, or had to leave my studies as a medical student. The demands of maintaining an eating disorder alongside working full-time were too much, and the eating disorder often won.

Looking back, I can see that this story didn’t need to be so black and white. Yes, when I was at my most unwell and in need of intensive, life-saving treatment, I shouldn’t have been having to think of work. I shouldn’t either have had to wait over six years for specialist treatment and battle a complex and unsupportive welfare system to have the support I needed to focus on recovery. It is so important that the different services involved in supporting people with eating disorders link up with each other when work just isn’t possible. But when I was ready to go back to work in some shape or form, the one-size-fits-all system – that sees you as capable of either full-time hours in any job you’re lucky enough to be offered, or totally unable to work at all – didn’t give me the flexibility I needed to take smaller steps back into work whilst still focusing on my treatment.

I worry that some people are being pushed into work before they are ready. I’ve often heard in my role as a mental health campaigner that “work is good for people” – even that it is therapeutic. Unless returning to work offers meaningful activity and individually-tailored support, it isn’t always appropriate, and even when this is the case, work is not a form of therapy or a substitute for treatment, however ‘therapeutic’ it might be. Employers need to give people experiencing eating problems the time, flexibility and space they need to access support and work in a way that doesn’t compromise their goals in terms of recovery.

Managing work and managing an eating disorder do not need to be in conflict. The stresses of each can be reduced rather than magnified, if a few steps are taken by workplaces towards fostering a culture of inclusivity which rejects stigma around mental health and eating problems. There are many practical steps that can help with this – from training an organisation in mental health and eating disorder awareness, to providing reasonable adaptations such as longer lunch breaks, time to attend appointments or avoiding meetings revolving around food and drink for example.

It is the responsibility of all of us – whether as employees, employers or members of society as a whole – to do everything we can to reduce the shame or fear of anyone being open about their eating problem. We must then meet this information with a listening and understanding ear, and offer helpful, flexible responses that remove as many barriers as possible. This way, we can make healthier workplaces for everyone, where ‘working well’ includes being ‘mentally well’ too. Then we might see a society where working with an eating disorder and working towards recovery don’t have to be in conflict. 

Contributed by James