World Mental Health Day, taking place today, falls in the early Autumn - a time when many of us are leaving summer behind and looking towards new achievements and getting back into work or study. Appropriately then, the theme this year is 'mental health in the workplace' - something relevant to us all.
In the same way as we all rely on a level of physical health to take on employment, we rely on our mental wellbeing too. Even though most people don't have a diagnosable mental health problem, it isn't the flu or common cold that account for the most missed days of work in the UK. Stress-related problems and symptoms of anxiety and depression now lead the way as the most significant factors contributing to lost productivity. If you add in a condition such as an eating disorder, the challenges of staying mentally well at work can become even harder.
Just as managing work can be extremely difficult and stressful, living with an eating disorder can be highly taxing. Over the years when I suffered with anorexia, I was so preoccupied with avoiding food, compulsively exercising and abusing laxatives in order to lose weight that my eating disorder eventually became much more important and time-consuming than work.
Bulimia was an equally demanding task-master. Both disorders sapped me of time, energy, and my physical and mental health - to the point that I couldn't sustain my job at all. Whether as a carer for the elderly, or as medical student, the demands of maintaining an eating disorder alongside working full-time were too much. Too often, the eating disorder won.
Looking back, I can see that this story didn't need to be so black and white. Yes, when I was at my most unwell and in need of intensive, life-saving treatment, I shouldn't have had to think of working at all. I shouldn't either have had to wait for over 6 years for specialist treatment, or battle a complex and unsupportive welfare system to have the support I needed to focus on recovery. It is so important that the different services involved in supporting people with eating disorders link up with each other when work just isn't possible.
When I was ready to go back to work however, the one-size-fits-all system - seeing you as either capable of full-time hours in any job you're lucky enough to be offered, or totally unable to work at all - didn't give me the flexibility I needed to take smaller steps back into work whilst still focussing on my treatment.
I worry that some people are being pushed into work before they are ready. I've often heard in my role as a mental health campaigner that "work is good for people" - even that it is therapeutic. But even in the lucky cases where returning to work provides meaningful activity accompanied with individually-tailored support, work is not a form of therapy or a substitute for treatment, however 'therapeutic' it might be. Employers need to give people experiencing eating problems the time, flexibility and space they need to access support and to work in a way that doesn't compromise their goals in terms of recovery.
Managing work and managing an eating disorder do not need to be in conflict. The stresses of each can be reduced rather than magnified if a few steps are taken by workplaces towards fostering a culture of inclusivity which rejects stigma around mental health and eating problems. There are many practical changes that can help with this - from training an organisation in eating disorder awareness to providing reasonable adaptations such as longer lunch breaks, time to attend appointments or avoiding meetings revolving around food and drink.
It is the responsibility of all of us - whether as employees, employers or members of society as a whole - to do everything we can to reduce the shame or fear of anyone being open about their eating problem. We must then meet this information with a listening and understanding ear, and offer helpful, flexible responses that remove as many barriers as possible. This way, we can make healthier workplaces for everyone - where 'working well' means being 'mentally well' too. Then we might see a society where working with an eating disorder and working towards recovery don't have to be in conflict.