Growing up as a high-achieving and ambitious teenager, I had no problems with work. Academic work and volunteering for charity came naturally to me and I had high hopes for a successful career path that like my school life, would be without barriers. So when I developed anorexia at the age of 15, I came to realise just how much I had taken my health and ability for granted. I struggled to attend school and eventually had to leave when the impact of the eating disorder took its toll on my body, isolated me from my peers and became my one and only way to cope with life. At this stage, the successful high-flying future I had always expected seemed an impossibility. Getting into employment wasn't a priority compared to the real hard work of getting well again, and during the bleakest times I couldn't see a future at all, never mind one where I could hold down a job.
Over the following years my eating disorder was a constant companion. Changing its face from anorexia to bulimia, my private battle became even more invisible and like the anxiety and depression if often came with, hard for others to recognize. Later, when it came to trying to get a job, I approached my applications being honest about my mental health problems and explaining why I had gaps in employment and education. Whilst I put the fact that I was rarely invited to interview down to the tough economic climate, I couldn't help but wonder whether I was being judged as unsuitable based on a health condition that wasn't my fault. So I left out my diagnoses and skimmed over occupation health questionnaires, and suddenly doors opened.
The trouble with this was that whilst I now had the opportunity to show employers face-to-face that I had a whole host of skills to offer, I also became deprived of the chance to be supported in work in the ways that my health required. It seemed that between the black and white choices of telling my employer everything or not letting them know anything at all, it was easier to keep quiet. This way, not only was I more likely to get a job in the first place, but when I did finally tell my employer that I was becoming unwell, I was met with such a limited understanding of what eating disorders even were that I wasn't at all confident in their ability to support me.
Even when I became very unwell, the responsibility was always on me to explain the symptoms I was going through and how they impacted on my work. I was even told when I finally disclosed my history of ill health that I could face disciplinary action for not having done so at the outset. What we need is a climate without this fear of being discriminated against if you have an ongoing health problem, where there is no risk of being seen as unable to fulfil your job just for lack of appropriate support. Even though this wasn't the case for me, I believe that campaigns such as Eating Disorders Awareness Week, better training for managers and improving consciousness of eating problems throughout the workplace and wider society will mean that people who are well enough to work will get the support that they need.
In my case, it's not as though I needed intense professional help. There were plenty of small actions that my employers could have taken to make life easier for me and to potentially prevent me from slipping further into my eating disorder. Offering a quiet place to eat during the lunch break or making sure I had time to have snacks; being flexible about working times so I could attend appointments or offering someone to talk to from time to time about how I was coping - these were all quite insignificant things. Yet they could tip the delicate balance between my job being manageable and enjoyable, or being a struggle that would ultimately drive me to use my eating disorder even more.
As well as working together to change attitudes towards eating disorders in society, being open at the outset - even though it may seem daunting and may still get a negative response - is a key way for employers to be aware of the needs of someone with an eating disorder.
Unfortunately, it may also be a way of recognizing those employers who continue to struggle to alleviate barriers facing sufferers at work.
At my worst, maintaining a severe eating disorder was more than a full-time job, and embarking on the road to recovery became the hardest but most worthwhile occupation I have ever had. Anyone experiencing an eating disorder or working to overcome one has shown their ability to work hard, and in the right conditions with the right support there is hope that one day, changing attitudes to eating disorders will mean that employers effectively support the work that people can do, rather than focussing on what they can't.