Eating Disorders in the Workplace

I had a conversation with one of our service users this week about heading back to work following some time away to focus on recovery. They had read the previous blog about burnout and related to a lot of what I said when reflecting on their relationship with work (leaving and returning) whilst in recovery for their eating disorder.

We had a really interesting conversation around eating disorders in the workplace, and (with permission) I wanted to share their story, common challenges and some advice for anyone trying to navigate the world of work with recovery. Enjoy!

It wasn’t a difficult decision to leave their job. Things had spiralled and life had handed them an ultimatum of… Recovery or, well, not.

“I was doing really well. I had friends, a well-ish paid job, a small but very close-knit family. On the surface I was thriving and loving life. Until I wasn’t anymore. Suddenly life felt harder. Things weren’t turning out how I wanted them to and the way I used to see the world was all just grey.

“My initial doctor’s appointment wasn’t that great. I wasn’t given much time to explain what was going on before they decided it was depression and sent me on my way.

“Eight months and four doctors later, I was diagnosed with an eating disorder and by this time I was my eating disorder. I always say to people now that it was like a seed which grew to be a part of me inside, and eventually out.”

It wasn’t a stretch to say that the working environment was somewhat a contributor to their deteriorating mental health. Long hours were expected, staff turnover was high and any reward or recognition within the workplace was non-existent.

“My life at the time just wasn’t sustainable. I was still in two minds about recovery anyway, worried that my ED was some kind of protector. I also had this job which was draining the majority of my energy and parents who – despite not living with me – were so overbearing and painfully enthusiastic about me getting better. It was all so bad.

“Then one day I say in a random support group and someone said ‘is this your life then?’ and I was like damn.”

Is this your life then?

They chewed on this question for three nights. Then after a few tough conversations with family, the decision was made to quit the job, move out of their rented house and back in to the family home.

It is such a significant decision to take a step back from life to focus on you, recognising that you and your health are so much more important than any job. And living back with their parents they were able to focus on themselves. With no dependants, the only responsibility they had was to get better – to recover.

“…And I absolutely hated it. There were so many days where I felt that I had nothing left. No job, no house, limited friends now… if any. It was awful at the start whilst I tried to battle the compulsions, the negative thoughts and the fear of food, life, enjoyment. It was all just a nonsense at times, it really was.”

Recovery isn’t linear. They found themselves here for a while, and out of work for much longer than they anticipated. But eventually it happened,

“A therapist said I was ready. It was weird, like me passing a driving test and being legally allowed on the roads. I was being given the permission to get a life. To get back on track with work, and relationships and all that jazz I was doing years before.

“But even before the pat on the back, I was like ****! My eating disorder is a full-time job in itself, and now I’m supposed to juggle a career too?”

There are a number of questions that come up when returning to work following recovery:

  • What do I do now / What am I still able to do now?
  • Do I can back to full-time hours? Should I start with something part-time?
  • What is if I let them down? What if I let myself down?
  • Will it cause a relapse?
  • Do I have to tell people? Do I have to disclose it in my CV?

“There were so many questions, I actually had a few bad weeks after that consult because I was just so anxious about this next stage in my life. My family were really supportive through it all, even when my mood swings led to some pretty gnarly tantrums”

Starting a new job…

Being in a position where you have created the headspace to get back to work whilst still managing your recovery, is incredible and despite the initial reaction, work became a great distraction to the daily battles of recovery. It gave them a sense of accomplishment away from food, adding new value and worth to their life.

“Some days really took a toll. But I called in sick when I needed to and worked from home on occasion. I found a workplace that understood that I didn’t need to be on my A-game every day which, genuinely, I value more than any salary these days”

In recovery, we often recognise that there will be days when managing life and managing our eating disorder successful is not possible. But doing our best and trying again tomorrow is more than okay.

There are also other benefits of returning to work/school and other of life’s responsibilities whilst in recovery, like recognising the need to refuel and nourish yourself to be physically able to perform and work well, including appropriate nourishment for brain function. 

But, what about the challenges?

1.   Eating with colleagues and/or strangers.

“One of my biggest challenges in recovery was eating with others. I have never really been comfortable eating around others – even at school I would try to avoid the whole dining room scenario. And I never tackled this in my recovery when I started a new job…

“My first day was a group lunch to welcome me to the team and it was one of the most anxiety-provoking situations I had ever been it. And I survived.”

Eating alone is common for someone with an eating disorder, and many will find it difficult to challenge that behaviour, whether that be with family, friends or strangers.

In a workplace, there are a number of regular opportunities which will arise such as group lunches, special occasions (birthdays and Christmas), working lunches and networking etc. so it is important to prepare for those situations:

  • If you can, try to challenge this behaviour and choose to eat lunch with your new colleagues. (But don’t stress if you’re not their yet!)
  • Eat what you feel comfortable eating and if you are feeling overly-conscious of what is on your plate, remind yourself that we humans are far more interested in ourselves than what you’re doing.
  • Engage in the conversations around the table to take the focus away from the food.

2.   What about office treats and extra food hanging around?

“I’ve never had to navigate this, but one thing that used to whizz through my mind when I was overthinking the return to work was birthdays. My mum is her office’s ‘mamabear’ and thinks nothing of taking a tray of donuts into work whenever there is a birthday – and that was something I always feared.

“Even now, I can still be quite rigid around food, so spontaneity like that is just *shudders* but it can also be disheartening because everyone is really happy and I’m Mr. Grumps.”

Reincorporating certain foods can be daunting, but is an important element of treatment. For those in recovery, one of the most commonly avoided food groups is those calorically-dense foods, which are most likely to be brought in as ‘treats’ in the office.

It can be distressing to face your fear foods, especially in the beginning. However, with practice it will become easier. Be proud when you are able to take this step in your recovery, and be kind to yourself when sometimes it feels too difficult.

3.   Keeping up with appointments and self-care.

“I was really anxious about telling anyone about my eating disorder at work. I didn’t want these new relationships I was making to be dulled or defined by my eating disorder, but that was difficult because sometimes I had to nip out to appointments with my care providers. 

“Eventually (about three weeks in!) I brought it up to my line-manager who said it was all okay. He didn’t ask for any details and we agreed that I would make up any hours as and when I could.”

Managing a full-time job and your recovery can be a balancing act, so accepting help is really important. It can be stressful trying to fit in your therapy / healthcare appointments between work commitments, whilst also making sure you are seen to be a team player.

A couple of things you can try:

  • As above, speak to you line-manager and see what can be done to make your working hours a bit more flexible around your needs.
  • Speak to your support workers to see if you can schedule a regular day/time each week to minimalise the disruption to your working week.
  • If your workplace isn’t working for you, know that your health and your recovery is more important than any job or career. Don’t let a toxic work environment undo your hard work! (Don’t forget to read the blog on burnout!)

What would you say to someone who is navigating their recovery at work?

“First, I’d say congratulations because you’re doing utterly amazing already. Heading back into the world of work is probably quite scary but there are so many things that make it worthwhile. I got my life back; I found a new confidence in myself and my ability to live away from my eating disorder and ultimately, I found a career and community that has shown me so much value and compassion.”

Contributed by Lucy Robinson

Fundraising, Marketing and Communications Lead