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.