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Adapt office behaviour to help eating disorder sufferers

This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week, an opportunity for employers to recognise the impact that passing comments and work events involving food can have on those struggling

Anorexia became my best friend when I was 12 years old. She was everything I wanted and needed. At 16 I started going to the child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) as an outpatient. Six months after becoming an outpatient at CAMHS I had well and truly hit rock bottom. With a failing heart I was admitted to a mental health hospital where I spent the next year of my life, learning about food, exercise and talking about my feelings.

What you don’t realise when you are living in a hospital with 24/7 care and support is the reality of thriving and even surviving in the outside world. I thought I was equipped for the outside world but what I didn’t factor in was how to navigate a job. Who would have thought being in recovery from a mental health problem could be so difficult when you are working full time?

The things that most others in their twenties wouldn’t even bat an eyelid at became things I was entranced by. From networking lunches to stressing if my exercise routine was affected. The biggest realisation for me was that I could still be really good at my job even if I chose not to eat certain foods. My anorexia didn’t make me weak but actually a stronger person for managing it and not letting it make me unwell.

No-one at work knew about me, but it didn’t make comments easier to hack. Sometimes harmless comments had a huge impact on me and my recovery. Here's how to help those around you.

Avoid diet and calorie chat as this can be triggering for people with eating disorders (and probably annoying for everyone else).

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 amount of people who would comment 'you are always eating' or 'why are you having a salad for lunch?' It got so annoying. I felt the need to constantly make excuses for my food choices.

Think about where you do team lunches. When I first started working in an office I had to learn to accept that team lunches would happen; but this didn’t make 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. Small changes really do make a huge difference.

Don’t quiz someone if they choose not to eat cake. It needlessly draws attention to their choice, which can add to an already uncomfortable situation.

Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes but just because someone looks OK doesn’t mean they are OK. For a lot of my working life, particularly when I started and then again when I relapsed in 2016, I looked 100% healthy. But this didn’t mean that I wasn’t struggling to function.

Get behind awareness days as an initial starting point to getting the conversation going, but make sure you find ways to keep the momentum going through your internal communications and leadership teams. It is about having a cultural shift so that everyone feels able to talk about how they feel, so that people don’t feel judged if they are having a bad day, and realising that we don’t have to constantly wear a mask to work.

After my book came out a lot of people came up to me after work and said 'you can’t have a mental illness you are always so happy'. This attitude needs to change and it is far too easy to hide our true feelings. As individuals we need to feel comfortable taking our masks off and showing the real us at work. We all have a part to play in this so I challenge you to change this by talking about how you feel.

We must never feel ashamed of our mental illnesses. It doesn’t make us weak.

Hope Virgo is author of Stand Tall Little Girl and an international mental health advocate