Might work be an area that requires your attention in ED recovery?
If I was to ask you what one of your most challenging situations in recovery has been, I expect a lot of you will answer, navigating recovery and work.
What is it about work that makes it difficult to remain in recovery or on course with your goals?
Taking time off from our jobs/ school or college may not be possible for everyone in ED recovery. It wasn’t for me personally. There are times, where I know not being at work would have been really beneficial to recovery. Taking time out is beyond the scope of this blog and very individual.
I want to share some reflections regarding the relationship my work has had in my own eating disorder with the hope this may help you.
Considering many of us spend more than half our adult lives at work, it may be we need to put extra “work” in to maintaining our health in our place of work. Finding a way that means the two are not in conflict is vital. Both living with an eating disorder and recovering can be very stressful, managing this with the stressors of work can compound this further. It’s exhausting.
Ideally a person who is in the early phases of recovery wouldn’t be worrying about their career when the main goal at this time is to stay alive, yet because of a plethora of reasons, such as financial worries, stigma, access to care this is the reality for many. Many jobs lack the flexibility that is so needed to make progress in recovery.
Recently, I moved city and role in a new hospital.
Before we moved I told myself , “this was going to be an amazing fresh start in terms of recovery”. Before I go any further, I still have this view but I’ve had to shift my expectations and time line.
I came here with the mindset; people here don’t know my past which means I can start a complete fresh, ‘I will eat with people, eat all the foods I’ve not been able to in previous jobs and I will break away from the ED disorder identity’.
** To be clear, I ’m not ashamed of my background or struggles and if asked I will elaborate, however I want to recover, and not being tied to this ED persona is important to me.
My goal is to not be seen as the person who is ‘weird’ around food, or left out of social engagements that involve eating. I’ve missed out on this for years and my goal is to heal this relationship. Making connection with others, is recovery to me. To get to that, this for me means taking smaller steps.
Okay, so fast forward 6 weeks into my new job. I’ve felt completely perplexed by why my intentions hadn’t come into full fruition.
Let’s break this down, why might be harder than anticipated?
1. Firstly, let’s bin the notion you can ‘out run’ an eating disorder. I believed for years I could move and leave my ED behind. Time after time I proved this wasn’t a thing. I moved half way across the globe and my eating disorder followed. And so, let me save you the wasted time: YOU CANNOT OUT RUN AN EATING DISORDER.
2. People spend a lot of time at work. Sometimes people are afraid to share their struggles for fears of; discrimination, stigma or bullying. I was and to a certain extent still am.
3. Work can be a trigger for many. I’m not for a second saying certain occupations cause an eating disorder, however I strongly believe in those of us with the vulnerability to developing an ED, certain jobs may perpetuate them. Having this knowledge may be an asset in preventing and helping people to recover, for both employees and your employer. For instance certain occupations attract particular personality traits. Working in fitness, fashion, catering may draw specific trait’s. Working in the food industry may both be motivated by an ED or exacerbate. Certain careers like professional sports, fashion, entertainment and healthcare reportedly have higher incidences of people with eating disorders. Doctors’s may be at risk through; perfectionism, hard working, people pleasers and combine that with a culture where it’s praised if people forgo breaks, being vulnerable and speaking out against struggle is seen as a weakness. The stress of looking after others, exams, career progression, missing social events, It’s a perfect storm for those of us with the ED vulnerability.
4. Neural pathways take time to develop and naturally take time to deconstruct and rebuild new pathways. If your ED mindset and behaviours are entangled with your job, then it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to get why it takes time to resolve. (Though it’s taken me until now to realise this for myself).
5. Culture and societal pressures, “diet culture, weight loss, fad diets” are almost seen as a way of workplace bonding. People can fear being ostracised by speaking against this or simply excluded if they try to protect themselves from these otherwise seemingly innocuous conversations.
6. In the same theme as above fearing social engagements that involve eating with others can feel like it’s thwarting making connection’s and perpetuate this spiral.
7. Work place canteens may serve as a barrier to some people, the lack of options coupled with social anxieties may add a layer of stress.
8. Time pressure, work related stress may exacerbate eating disorder thoughts and behaviours especially when eating disorders have been the maladaptive coping strategies for stress.
9. Work may reinforce self esteem issues. If a person’s eating disorder is entwined with poor self esteem, a person who feels negatively about themselves at work or has poor confidence it’s unsurprising this may manifest in their eating disorder’s.
10. Imposter syndrome may be both perpetuated by an eating disorder and in some ways recovery. This is a big one for me, as I battle the eating disorder it can cause a imbalance of energy. I become anxious my focus on recovery is thwarting my career progression. I feel added stress and pressure, which can become a trigger in itself. However if I am not focusing on recovery, my work performance slips at the cost of my obsession with food and numbers. My anxiety can make me worry about losing out on promotions or career progression. Yet despite having to expend this energy, it will never impact upon my work in the same detriment that living with an eating disorder can. Being patient and kind to yourself here, I feel is the key. Forgiving for what is.
Now we can see some of the ways our eating disorder might be entwined in our work schedule, we have given ourselves insight and a place to focus our recovery goals.
I personally feel like identifying this, is a milestone in my own recovery, but I also feel frustrated by the fact it’s something I have to consciously focus on. It’s another hurdle when so much I want to be able to say; I’m free. Free to focus on anything but recovery from anorexia. However, I also fully embrace this is part of my healing journey.
Though I don’t claim to have this figured out, these are some of the tools I’m using to help me navigate this part of my recovery:
1. Make realistic goals. I am very much a black and white, or all or nothing thinker. Recognising my thought processes around recovering in the workplace has served as a catalyst to make changes. It’s not a failure if you can’t challenge everything all at once.
2. Be honest with yourself and importantly your support team. Make use of help anywhere you can get it.
3. Set yourself goals and debrief if they need tweaking. For example my initial goals were to eat with people every day when I started here. When that wasn’t working I needed to go back to basics and work out what was serving as the barrier. If eating with others is something that causes you a lot of anxiety, perhaps starting with smaller challenges first and building up to this might be a good one. I’ve been working on challenges like; making eating regularly non negotiable, practising eating different foods and buying the occasional meal or snack from the canteen. Something I have never been able to do until now. As I’ve become more comfortable in doing this I’ve then aimed to eat with others on occasion. I might not be in a place to buy foods and eat with others everyday yet, but that’s okay! I’ve often brought my lunch in and then gone and sat with my new peers outside or in the canteen. My point here is, you don’t have to achieve everything at once, take a step back from striving for perfect. Perfection is an illusion. Start with what feels achievable right now. I was focusing on the end goal rather than where I am right now.
4. Perhaps find a colleague you feel comfortable with, someone you can eat with (they don’t have to know about your eating disorder). I used to eat with a colleague in my old job, because she had a “fuck it mentality’ around food she was a great role model ( and she didn’t know how much she was helping me)
5. If it’s an option, sharing your struggles with a co-worker or employer. This is very personal and not for all. However having people around who know about your ED may allow other ways you can be supported: making time for breaks or allowing you to attend appointments etc.
6. Boundaries, boundaries and boundaries. Whatever boundaries you need to protect your recovery, whether it’s removing yourself from triggering comments, or carving specific times in your day that align with recovery. Boundaries are like a recovery superpower.
How can you, as someone without an eating disorder help a co-worker?
It’s highly likely you work with someone struggling with their relationship with food and body. You may never know someone is struggling ( kind of the nature of an eating disorder).
But you can be a real ally in someone’s recovery by:
1. Being mindful of how you talk about food and bodies around others. Don’t be that person who encourages the cheap diet talk. Keep the diet talk out.
2. Don’t comment on others eating habits, an innocent comment such as “ I wish I could eat that, or is that all you’re having or you’re going to eat all that” might just be the comment that serves as a barrier to a person eating.
3. If someone turns down an invitation to join you in social eating, don’t stop inviting them on other occasions. When someone feels excluded or isn’t given the opportunity to participate it may perpetuate the cycle that they cannot join in or they have to keep isolated. Eating disorders are extremely isolating.
4. Be kind. Don’t judge someone.
5. If you think someone you work with may be suffering from an eating disorder, share your concern with them in a non judgemental manner ( this may depend on your relationship). They may not open up to you, but you may have given them encouragement to talk to someone they’re comfortable with. It’s not your responsibility to make someone recover ( no one can do that) and so often a person won’t need advice but a supportive ear.
6. Educate yourself about eating disorders, some of the most harmful comments come from ignorance rather than a place of malice.
7. Be a role model, show people it’s ok to show vulnerability, to talk. You’re vulnerability may be the gift a person needs to feel safe.
8. If you are an employer, you can make your workplace a safer, more inclusive environment. Providing mental health training, awareness to make the workplace inclusive and reject stigma surrounding mental health.
I expect if asked, a lot of you would join me in saying one of the biggest threats to you recovery is work. Right?
With that, it makes sense a lot of our recovery energy needs to be focused on creating balance where the two are not in conflict. Perhaps talking with your support team can help you create a more symbiotic relationship.
What else would help you at work?