The Dos and Don’ts when you work with someone with an eating disorder by Hope Virgo
Posted on October 31st, 2018
After a year in hospital recovering from anorexia I knew what I needed to do to stay well. I knew how much to eat each day, I knew how to (try) and quiet that voice in my head. I think 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 20s starting out in their career wouldn’t even bat an eye lid at but yet for me they became things I became so entranced by. From over thinking networking lunches to stressing if my exercise routine wasn’t going to work that day. The biggest realisation for me was that I could still be really good at my job. 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. I am not here to lecture but to tell you what you could do to help those around you.
The Dos and Don’ts when you work with someone with an eating disorder
Working with someone with an eating disorder can be tough, we live in a culture where people are so desperate to talk about dieting, calories and exercise. And I don’t want to be ordering you to stop you doing all of that, but it is about being mindful.
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?” Oh my god it got so annoying! I felt the need to constantly make excuses for my food choice and telling someone who is in recovery from anorexia that they are having too much to eat is highly unhelpful!
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. Simple small changes really do make a huge difference.
Don’t constantly chat about diets and calories
This is just annoying! I was lucky that I was in a place in my recovery where I could manage these conversations but for many others it can be triggering. I am not saying don’t talk about this but please be mindful of those around you.
If someone chooses not to have cake don’t quiz them on why
The amount of excuses I came up with about why I didn’t always have a slice of cake. It became ridiculous! I don’t know why people always feel the need to pick up on this, but please try not to.
Remember that just because someone looks okay doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling
Eating disorders really do come in all shapes and sizes, but just because someone looks okay doesn’t mean they are okay. For a lot of 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. Struggling to get up in the morning.
If someone has been off for a while with an eating disorder, please don’t comment on their weight when they return
Yes, they may now look “healthy” but healthy or even “well” as intended compliments can backfire. An eating disorder mindset will interpret these negatively and this couple be triggering or effect their recovery.
What else can I do?
Get behind awareness days as an initial starting point to getting conversation going but make sure you find ways to keep the momentum going through your internal communications and leadership teams. We all have a mental health, yes to differing degrees but it is important that we manage our mental health like we manage our physical health.
Recovery from anorexia is totally possible and learning to manage a mental health problem at work is also doable. 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 the amount of people that 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. It is far too easy to hide our true feelings through wearing a mask. As individuals we need to feel comfortable taking our masks down 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 ever feel ashamed of our mental illnesses. It doesn’t make us weak.
Hope Virgo, Author of Stand Tall Little Girl and a leading mental health campaigner.
Hope has recently launched the Dump the Scales campaign which can be signed here.