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The Day I Told My Boss About My Eating Disorder

It wasn’t exactly a secret in the newsroom; who was I kidding? I was disappearing in the most literal of terms, and was finding it harder and harder to function. I had always been a high-achiever, not exactly news to those familiar with the cliché characteristics of an anorexic.

I thrived on excelling, not just doing the expected, but doing the unexpected. I guess I was what you call a ‘high-functioning’ anorexic. I set incredibly high standards for myself, which was great when I achieved them; I would get a pat on the back by my editors and I would go home on a high.

The cracks appeared when I didn’t meet my ridiculous self-made demands. I felt crushed if I let the team down, and rated my value on what I had delivered. My ego was thriving; my self-esteem was at rock bottom.

It was only a matter of time before the cracks became too big to hide, and that day came one afternoon when I broke down in the carpark of my office with my editor. I was terrified. I hadn’t told anyone at work I was struggling. He had noticed my weight loss, but I was too ashamed to put my hand up and say I needed help. I didn’t want to be seen as weak or vulnerable.

Landing a job in a company I had always dreamed of working for, was something I was incredibly proud of and I didn’t want to jeopardise my position. The thing is though, I was slowly but surely becoming less able to function on all cylinders, and the very thing I was trying to avoid was only a whisker away.

My hope is that everyone working in any organisation will have the choice to put their hand up if they have a mental health illness, just as you would if you had a physical illness. I don’t mean reluctantly put their hand up; I mean genuinely feel ok to do so.

So why did I feel so ashamed to say I was suffering? I didn’t want to lose my job; my family was proud of where I worked. I was proud of where I worked. I am not a quitter, and have been called tenacious on more than one occasion.

My pride was pretty big, or maybe that was my ego? Anyhow that conversation in the carpark is one that I will never forget. My boss didn’t judge me, but instead put his arm around me and gave me a hug. I think he called me soppy or something to that affect! What he showed me was love and compassion; the two greatest gifts he could have given me right there and then.

I ended up taking seven months off from my job to go into treatment for my eating disorder. I was incredibly fortunate to be given the time to go away and do what I needed to do. I was so ill that I didn't give much thought to whether my job would still be open when I returned, but my editor went above and beyond to make sure it was waiting for me when I came home.

I clearly remember the day I walked back into the office. I felt like an ‘open book’ and incredibly vulnerable. I looked and felt different. Most of my colleagues knew where I had been, but some found it difficult to begin a conversation with me. I was greeted with “you look well,” “it’s good to see you,” “when did you get back?” But no one delved much deeper than that. Many of them seemed unsure of what to say or what not to say.

I work in a high-paced media environment where people come and go frequently, so it’s not unusual for colleagues to move to other departments and then come back months later. Aside from this, I never once felt judged and fundamentally believe that the care and support I was shown by my editor and colleagues was crucial to my recovery.

Eighteen months ago, I took part in an in-house campaign to raise awareness of mental health in the workplace. I had up until then kept my story largely outside of the office. I am by nature a private person and have often wondered what impact my eating disorder has had on my career progression. But when the opportunity came to share my story, I went for it. I convinced myself because I wasn’t going to be alone; there were several others who were also willing to talk about their mental ill health; the human psyche loves nothing more than ‘safety in numbers!”

Shortly after my video went live on the intranet, I was inundated with emails from colleagues (some I knew and some I didn’t) who told me that they also suffered with an eating disorder, and that hearing me talk so openly about my experience had given them the courage to seek help. I didn’t receive one negative comment; all I received was love, kindness and positivity.

I have since felt more empowered to continue my journey of speaking up in the hope of encouraging others to do the same. I don’t exaggerate when I say stigma can kill. If you don’t feel able to ask for help, you may never feel the love or kindness that can save your life.

Thankfully, there are companies who are beginning to invest in their employee’s mental wellbeing, but it remains on the backburner for many. What we need are leaders, managers and CEOs who are willing to put their hand up and talk about it their own experiences. There is no one who hasn’t been affected by mental ill health, and the more we hear from those at the top advocating change, the more it will be normalised.

Above all though the most crucial element is conversation. I was given the time to have a chat. I was shown love, and was given the opportunity to speak; not as employer/employee, but as a human.

A sense of purpose in a company is not all about £’s/$’s; that is the consequence, but shouldn’t be the priority. If staff are happy and are encouraged to invest in their mental, emotional, physical and social health, then a company will thrive. How many times have you wished for Friday to arrive when it is only Monday? Why? We spend most of our lives in our working environment. We are becoming more frazzled and treat people as if they are a unit of production.

In the UK 12.5 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17, and accounted for 40% of all work-related ill health cases. That is a huge percentage, which I believe could be massively reduced.

There are some key ideas that companies can do right now to support employees:

  • Language; the way we speak to one another is vital to how we feel. I believe language has the potential to encourage or hinder progression. Let’s create a more positive narrative around mental health.

  • Visual images; the kind of images that we see in mental health communities are uninspiring and predictable. Heads in hands, shadowed/blurred backgrounds sound familiar? Whilst mental health can be dark, many people who suffer are funny, creative and intelligent. Why can’t we reflect this visually?

  • Peer support; something I have created within my own social media community. Sharing stories and connecting with like-minded individuals has been my biggest source of strength.

This might be controversial, but I’m not so sure that workplace ‘wellness programs’ are the way forward. If organisations provided a more rounded culture for their staff, then many of the days lost to mental ill health could be avoided. Give staff more job control and flexibility, encourage work/life balance and incentives that are not money driven. These are not radical ideas, and have all been shown to reduce turnover, increase productivity and reduce absenteeism.

Above all though the most crucial element is conversation. I was given the time to have a chat. I was shown love, and was given the opportunity to speak; not as employer/employee, but as a human.

I was incredibly fortunate to have a boss who went out of his way to support me through the journey. He is a great friend of mine to this day and I will be forever grateful to him, but I am aware that he is the minority, not the majority.

If you are an employer who is concerned about one of your employees, then please don’t just bury your head because you don’t know what to say or do. Be brave and create a safe space for them to open-up. Don’t fill the vacuum with stigma, but instead fill it with compassion, kindness and empathy. Don’t wait until tomorrow or ‘the right time,’ because you are afraid or feel out of your depth; just be a you and ask “are you ok?”

If you are an employee and you’re struggling, then be brave and seek help. It doesn’t have to be your manager; find anyone you feel comfortable with and ask for a few minutes of their time. If you are too scared to speak to someone you know, then most larger companies have an ‘employee assisted programme’ where you can chat to someone in confidence. Wherever you work, don’t suffer in silence.

My hope is that everyone working in any organisation will have the choice to put their hand up if they have a mental health illness, just as you would if you had a physical illness. I don’t mean reluctantly put their hand up; I mean genuinely feel ok to do so.

Every story shared is a lifeline to someone else. I was fearful of sharing my story, but I am so glad I did. I still have difficult days, and even a few months ago I had a mini-meltdown at work; but again, I was showered with compassion and kindness. I was given some time to get myself together and returned a few days later reenergised. We all have physical, emotional, social and mental health needs. Each element needs to be rested, nurtured and cared for equally, to enable us to function as fully rounded people. It’s time organisations realised the potential of their employees if they fully embraced this concept.

Author's Bio


Laura Hearn is a journalist and TV producer and the founder of Jiggsy; an online global community connecting everyone affected by an eating disorder, via it's unique 'Jiggsaw' platform. Laura uses her experience of recovering from anorexia to encourage others to also share their stories around mental health, and to realise the power of connection in mental well-being.

You can read more about Laura's story and how you can get involved with the 'Jiggsaw' community on her website.

You can also connect with Laura via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.


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