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How Eating Disorders Are Stigmatised At Work

Illustrated by Assa Ariyoshi
“The stereotypes I struggled with for quite some time at work are that, ‘if you’ve suffered so badly from an eating disorder, why are you no longer incredibly thin?’ And, ‘how can you still be suffering from it now, having put on weight?’”
Hannah* is explaining the most pernicious opinions she’s encountered at her current job, where some colleagues have undermined her eating disorder and suggested she’s just ‘putting it on’. In a recent interview with eating disorder charity Beat, Hannah quotes actual comments she's heard at work, including, “How could you starve yourself for so long like that?"

It transpires that this lack of understanding is a common endurance for eating disorder sufferers across the UK. Eating Disorders Awareness Week – jointly choreographed by eating disorder charities including Beat, MGEDT and NEDA – recently aimed to draw attention to cases like Hannah’s, highlighting the importance of eliminating the shame and stigma attached to such illnesses, especially in the workplace.
To back up the campaign, Beat have released the findings from a survey of over 650 people who have suffered from eating disorders while at work. Among their findings, the charity found that one in three sufferers had faced discrimination in the workplace; 40% admitted their employer had "unhelpfully" impacted on their recovery; 38% had used annual leave to meet medical appointments; and 80% believed their employers and workmates were "uninformed" about their eating disorder.

For Becky Brooks, the Member Engagement officer at ENEI (the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion), who collaborated with Beat on the campaign, the overall message is all too clear: Many employers do not understand eating disorders and their extremely serious implications. “As a consequence," she says, "those with eating disorders are commonly discriminated against in the workplace, or at least are unsupported”.

Given the ‘archetypical’ eating disorder sufferer is often considered to be either A) a lonely, disaffected student or B) a pimply, troubled teenager, many people are simply unaware that anyone of any age, from any background, can be affected. They may therefore struggle to comprehend that a grown-up, professional adult can suffer too.

This, of course, flies in the face of the reality: research from the NHS Information Centre has shown that up to 6.4% of adults displayed signs of an eating disorder (2007’s Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey), meaning it’s far from uncommon for people to develop eating disorders later in life, while Beat have even reported cases developing in women in their '70s. And, as Beat emphasise, from your boss right down to the most junior member of staff, “anyone can be affected, whatever their level in an organisation”.
Another reason why eating disorder sufferers have it particularly difficult in the workplace is that, at work, we tend to hide our personal and private problems, aspiring to project a perfectly prim and productive image of ourselves. Gagged by a sense of shame and the potential for discrimination, those with eating disorders also most often suffer in silence, in whatever setting.

One sufferer whose reticence and furtiveness meant his eating disorder went completely unnoticed is Alex*, who suffered from bulimia for around a year while catering in a sweet shop.

“I felt I was lucky in that I could work in the basement alone a lot and get away with it,” he says. “Nobody would find out, but I spent most of the day lightheaded. My colleagues and boss never picked up on it, so they weren’t able to help.

"People did begin to notice I was getting thinner – the work uniform kept looking too big for me and some people [sort of] picked up on it, but never said anything. I think even just having someone there who would have been willing to listen would have done the world of good.”

Alex says lunchtimes were especially testing. After all, where could you hide? “Everyone used to eat lunch in the break room but I was way too embarrassed and ashamed to be seen eating in there,” he says. “So I used to go out into an alley and scoff a tonne of food. It felt pretty humiliating to have that happen a lot and occasionally people would walk past while I was sat there. I just went red with embarrassment.”
Say a colleague or manager does notice a problem in a fellow member of staff in a situation such as this, how should they broach the topic? And what kind of policies and support structures should ultimately be put in place?

Beat say the first step on the road to recovery from an eating disorder is acknowledging there’s a problem – a problem which the sufferer themselves may not even recognise and might vehemently deny. Given the amount of time we typically spend at work, colleagues may be the next best placed to spot such an issue in a fellow worker, in which case they should express their concern to a manager.

“Colleagues can provide an enormous amount of support to someone with an eating disorder,”adds Brooks, positively. “They are also more likely to notice a problem in a fellow worker than a manager or senior employee.”

A best practice guide published by ENEI, in conjunction with Beat, sets out that all senior members of staff should be made aware of the tell-tale signs: skipping meals, compulsive exercising, excessive weight loss, and so on, in order to identify the illness at an early stage, talk sensitively about the issue, and be able to offer support to the colleagues if needed.

If the problem is dealt with quickly and effectively at work in this way, then sufferers are likely to seek necessary treatment. The sooner the disorder is identified, the more likely those affected are to make a full recovery (and, at the moment, just 46% of anorexia patients and 47% of bulimia patients currently do.)

Jessica*, for example, knows just what it’s like when employers do act accommodatingly, speaking of “how incredibly supportive and patient [my colleagues] were while I was struggling before my hospital admission. I’ve kept in regular contact with my colleagues throughout my treatment, and have been overwhelmed by their support."

Jessica was working at a school when she asked to take six months off for intensive treatment. “As soon as I walked through the door, I was hit with a complete mix of emotions,” she says of her recent return to the office. “Excitement, happiness and joy to see all of my colleagues and hear some lovely comments that confirmed just how much progress I’d made."

It goes without saying that employers should constantly strive to make their work environments feel happier and more inclusive, and engaging with the mental health of their staff like this is surely one of the most helpful ways to start. Perhaps then, the imprudent quips that Hannah reeled off earlier on will become a thing of the past. And, at long last, the 725,000 individuals currently suffering from eating disorders across the UK might feel more inclined to open up.

*Names have been changed.