The theme of National Eating Disorders Week 2016 in the UK is ‘Eating Disorders in the Workplace.’ This feels like such an important area to address, but it so rarely is. Eating disorders are often thought of as something that afflicts teenage girls, but that they grow out of once they realize there are bigger things in life than being thin and not wanting to eat. The assumption is that someone will recover from their eating disorder once they work. That’s wrong on so many levels.
Firstly, men and women of all ages experience eating disorders. Even when the most common onset is teenage years, the average length of treatment is six years. And the delay to receive this can be much longer.
Secondly, not everyone with an eating disorder is thin or doesn’t eat. Only 10% of eating disorders classify as anorexia, and even among those who do have typical anorexia nervosa there’s a large amount who hate being thin, do eat at least to keep them alive, and wish their minds would let them eat more.
And finally, it makes the assumption that work will take over and thus allow you to relinquish an eating disorder. I’ve had it said to me many times that a new job or career will solve my problems. The assumption being that I’m somehow just bored or frustrated. And that career success or at least career distraction is the answer.
Work and an eating disorder: Not quite so simple
If only eating disorders were so simple. They don’t go away based upon environment or context, although that’s not to say that these things cannot make a difference. Work can in fact exacerbate things, by being an excellent distraction or a huge cause of stress. It’s not the cause of an eating disorder, and it’s not the solution.
Eating disorders in the work place
As an adult, eating disorders are much less likely to be picked up in the workplace, where the culture of dieting runs rife. People feel that they do not want to comment on someone else’s food and body – ‘it’s their choice’ is a refrain sometimes heard. Except, with an eating disorder, it’s often not.
People with eating disorders are characterized by their drive and perfectionism. They may in fact be high achieving individuals excelling in their profession, and this can mask the severity of the problem.
The fact is, that there is a problem. Whether you are CEO of a company or serving coffee – work is where or how you spend over half your waking hours. It is an important aspect of your life to consider. Whether you have to take time off or make adjustments, they are worth doing for the sake of your health.
Here are a few ways to make your work environment as supportive as possible
- Speak to HR. Most organizations – unless very small – have a HR department. They are there for a reason, and will usually want to support you. Businesses don’t want to lose good employees. They can will work to support your recovery where they can.
- Block out time in your calendar for meals and snacks, and have these as non negotiable times like any other meeting.
- Walk away from those unhelpful conversations about diets and food. You can bond over more meaningful stuff. Invest in some headphones if that helps.
- Ask about flexible working location and hours to enable you to go to medical appointments if necessary.
- If you have a very physical job or one where you are on your feet all day consider finding ways that you can be more sedentary. For example, when you are working in a supermarket in the aisles, is there a way that you can spend more time on the checkouts? If you are often out and about with clients, can you schedule your meetings to be closer together?
- Be focused – if you are struggling and work is not helping or your type of work and/or environment is part of the problem, then remember that your health is more important than any job.