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Dealing with anorexia at work

Posted on from KPMG

To mark National Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2017, KPMG executive and anorexia nervosa sufferer, Jack Jacobs, talks openly about his condition and what support mechanisms have been put in place for him at work as he tackles his illness.

Five years ago, at the age of 15, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. I starved myself, beat myself up, isolated myself and was stuck in my head. 

It had all started off with the aim of losing weight, to ‘feel comfortable’, to ‘feel accepted’ and most of all, to ‘feel normal’. Within three months, at the age of 14, I had lost nearly three stone.

There is an unfortunate misconception that anorexia is a physical illness based on weight and image. To clarify, it is a very serious mental illness with severe, life threatening physical side-effects. It nearly killed me. Within a year, I went from a ‘normal’ teenager to someone who could hardly walk to school without the fear of collapsing. The truth is, I was addicted to the empty feeling, the thought of hurting myself that little bit more and most importantly to me at the time, starving myself to death.

Safeguarding mental and physical health

Mental and physical health go hand in hand and it's vital that we not only look after both aspects of our health, but also treat them with the same amount of importance. As an individual who has lived with an eating disorder, I know how crippling it can be and how daily tasks can become exhausting. If the loss of productivity could be calculated accurately from the amount of self-inflicted pain an individual is putting themselves under, it would be shocking. 

Eating disorders can be difficult to approach in the workplace, especially given the nature of the psychological battle an individual is experiencing. Every individual is different and will inevitably have different triggers. It's extremely important that people leaders and those in a managerial position receive training in order to help identify when employees are suffering from mental health problems, and how to appropriately support them in any way they can. Often sufferers do not show any outward signs that they are suffering from a mental health problem, but that does not make them any less debilitating.

Employer support through networks

As a member of the KPMG BeMindful Network, I am able to raise awareness around all types of mental health problems and work towards creating a stigma-free working environment to ensure colleagues can talk openly about the issues they are facing and share their experiences. We do this through events, workshops and an array of mediums to create an inclusive network. Before I joined the network, I did feel apprehensive about sharing my experience, but, I truly believe that we are creating a ripple effect that is spreading across all member firms. 

These kinds of networks are invaluable to all members of staff, not only those that are suffering from mental health problems. There may be a time in an individual’s life when their friends or loved ones suffer from a mental illness, and knowing that their employer provides a support network where they can receive information and guidance makes all the difference.  

From a business perspective, being able to support your workforce through mental illness could lower absenteeism and improve productivity. Eating disorders cost the U.K. economy between £6.8bn and £8bn per annum, so working towards better understanding is a win-win for all involved.

Creating a safe space for discussion

The recent increase in school leaver schemes and apprenticeships means that organisations are dealing with more young employees than ever before. According to eating disorders charity Beat, 46% of eating disorder suffers are aged between 16-24 which makes it increasingly important that organisations of all sizes and professions join together to reduce the stigma and, individually, create a stigma-free, open and friendly environment so it’s OK to talk about these issues. From my experience, I was only able to help myself when I was able to admit I had a problem and actually vocalise it.


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