Workplace bullying and eating disorders
Mel blogs about the impact being bullied at work had on her.
I am always interested to see people sharing their experiences in the workplace. The success stories of those who came from rock bottom and the frustrations many suffer in their sector.
However, what I have noticed is there is a still a huge gap in the discussions around bullying and mental health in the workplace, why bullying and mental health sit side by side, and why companies have a responsibility to understand it.
I know this for very personal reasons.
Many years ago, I was appointed to a job which, after moving hundreds of miles away including moving my daughter’s school, was nothing like what had been sold at interview.
"Although I was a performing manager at this point I worked in a very different sector to the one I had now entered."
When I first arrived, I was excited at the prospect of the task in hand and was delighted with the support and enthusiasm of my line manager.
Not only was he fantastic to work with he was supportive, helping me along the way and guiding me on how to make the role my own, knowing full well it had been initially mis-sold.
I remember my eagerness in what I was to do, and telling everyone back home what a great move it had been and how thrilled I was to be given such a great opportunity.
"However, all was to change when my line manager left... Exit Mr Nice Guy, Enter Mrs not very nice at all."
Within a few days I started to notice was she wasn’t approachable and was hostile towards me. Gone were the 1-1 tutorials on the business that was still very new to me, and in was the expectation that I should know everything I was doing, since I had been given the job.
For a few weeks, I accepted her behaviour, ignoring sly remarks and her eye rolls. I became nervous in her company, often apologising before I asked a question for fear I was bothering her, in the end preferring to ask her deputy.
After a while I found going into the office filled me with dread because I couldn’t work out how she would behave towards me. I started to withdraw and feel anxious.
I needed some important information from her before a big meeting one. As usual I apologised for bothering her and I asked the question. But instead of an answer all I got silence.
Frustrated, I sent an email to her deputy, sat opposite, asking “what do I have to do to find out what’s going on around here?!!” Except with the line managers face in my head I sent it to her instead of the deputy.
"The scolding in public I received was sadly the start of what would be the worst time of my entire career."
Following that email I was ignored. Meetings would be held and I wouldn’t be invited. I was never given a voice. Junior management would know what was going on before me.
My limited understanding of the sector and new division was frequently chucked at me with spite. Files went missing and I found work I had completed disregarded as not being good enough (even though colleagues had helped me write it).
"I'm not sure when I began missing meals due to anxiety, it just crept up on me and became part of my daily life. "
And as for being sick due to the negative emotions I had, it had become a regular occurrence before I really noticed.
From then on, every day I would wake up (if I did sleep) more and more anxious, my walk to work was filled with dread on what might happen that day, and my usual bubbly personality was replaced with very low self-esteem.
Before going into the office, I would head to the bathroom take a few breaths to calm down, and when that failed, and I was still anxious, throw up. I would then head to my desk ready for whatever tension was going to be thrown at me.
I have no idea why my anxiety turned to vomiting but it did and I had started a habit that became a ritual.
Every time I felt anxious I would throw up. And then, in an attempt to avoid this unpleasant experience, I began skipping meals too. Hours would become days and food would only be consumed if I was close to passing out.
The cycle was emotionally draining but one I couldn’t stop. Within weeks I had created a way of coping with the situation, and I found the more I did it the more I coped.
"Of course, you might expect my work to suffer but not so, I was so determined not to get on the wrong side of this woman. I worked flat out day after day."
HR eventually stepped in and decided it would be better if I had a different manager. He left me to get on with it. By this time, I understood the market and moved to a desk isolated from everyone and worked alone.
Work became more bearable and I became more successful in what I was doing. However my ritual was now disciplined and my emotions were focused, not just on doing my job but on eating as little as possible. Even though I had very little to do with this woman, or anyone within the department, I could not break the habit because my mindset was fixed. The weight started to fall off and I was way below my arrival starting weight.
Despite my withdrawal from everyone, and working 12 hours a day, no one intervened to discuss what was happening to the once enthusiastic person who had arrived less than a year before. Of course, people commented on my weight, but I had perfected my art of lies to a tee, telling them I was working hard at the gym but would be looking to add a few pounds. I started to layer my clothing to hide my frame.
It was only when on a run one night that I collapsed with a broken rib that my parents flew over and the real issue was highlighted. Sat in the consultant’s room I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, with strong traits of bulimia nervosa.
Having an eating disorder that is typically associated with teenagers was hard for me to admit, It was only after recovery that I realised that treatment saved my life. Eating disorders are not just about how someone looks, it is far deeper.
Eating disorders can be triggered by trauma and in my case bullying in the workplace. Even after leaving the organisation, which I eventually did, I had battles with my demons. I was excelling in work and socialising with my new colleagues, but inside I was deeply troubled. To this day I still have anxiety, but like a diabetic who needs insulin, my anxiety is given care and attention and has no impact on my life.
"It took many years after the event to finally get closure and move on but it is a time of my life I will never forget."
It’s an issue that is hidden by the people who experience it (male and female) because of stigma, even more so if you are older.
If you do not understand or know about eating disorders and mental health, read up on it. If you are a company, ensure your HR team have a clear policy on it and please make sure staff have someone to approach when they really need help.
Remember workplace bullying is a problem, and an important part of mental health at work which cannot be ignored.
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