When I landed my dream job as an editor at Oxford University Press, I thought I had my career mapped out ahead of me. I started my first ‘proper’ job bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, excited to develop myself and be involved in the wonderful world of publishing.
What I didn’t anticipate, however, was that a few months into my new job, anorexia would rear its incredibly ugly head and do its utmost to destroy me, taking my career with it.
Over the next six years, I underwent three separate admissions for intensive inpatient and day-patient eating disorder treatment. Each admission necessitated 10-12 months off work, which meant almost three years of absence in total.
I was incredibly lucky in that my employer supported me throughout that time. I’d heard horror stories of employers finding grounds to dismiss employees on long-term sick leave, so I was grateful to even have a job to go back to each time I was discharged from intensive treatment and attempted to reclaim my career.
Returning to work after a long period of absence is tough. It takes a considerable amount of time to fit back into the rhythms of working life, to build up the stamina required to complete a full working week, and to build up relationships with colleagues old and new. This is particularly difficult when you’re still battling a mental illness. In my case, I would return to work physically recovered, but psychologically I had a long way to go.
Fortunately, my employer understood. Each time I went back to work, I was given a phased return - agreed in collaboration with me, my care team and Occupational Health – and I was also given time off to attend outpatient appointments. These two small things made the world of work accessible to me again and enabled me to see that there was more to my life than anorexia.
Since being in recovery, I've been trying to encourage people to talk about mental health in the workplace. When I first returned to work, I didn’t know of any colleagues who had been through similar things or experienced similar difficulties. It felt lonely and shameful.
I wouldn’t want any of my colleagues to feel that way, so for Time to Talk Day 2019, I worked with a colleague to set up and run a stall in the workplace. We invited people to come along and just chat about mental health, with free biscuits to tempt them in!
I had some great, honest and open discussions with people, and it was thrilling to see their enthusiasm for opening up conversations about mental health at work.
Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to communicating mental health struggles in many workplaces, but I’ve found that being open about my experiences has really helped me to feel like the “real me” at work, and hopefully it might help others too.