How My Employer Supported Me Through Treatment and Recovery
Posted on June 11, 2018
The very first person to help me consider the possibility of seeking extra support for my eating disorder wasn't my therapist, doctor, husband, mom, or best friend; it was my boss. I work in public health, and I have a boss who understands the nature of addiction and mental health issues. As my eating disorder worsened, he understood that more intensive treatment could benefit me, both as an individual and as an employee.
Over the past several months of recovery, I have heard too many stories of individuals who have had to quit their jobs while in treatment. I've heard of countless others who are incessantly asked, "so, when can I expect you back full-time?" I have learned that my work environment and culture is the exception, and that most employers care far more about the bottom line than the wellbeing of their staff.
My work in health policy can be unpredictable and stressful, and it was hard for me—a people-pleasing perfectionist—to just drop everything, knowingly adding even more to my boss's workload, in order to do what was in my best interest. Prior to leaving for residential treatment, my boss and I had a conversation about expectations during my absence. I wasn't expected to check emails, let alone respond to them. I wasn't expected to call and check in. I wasn't expected to keep up with the latest happenings in public policy. There was just one expectation of me while I was away: focus on myself.
I spoke with my boss once while I was in residential treatment, only to tell him that I'd be stepping down to a day treatment program, extending my work absence for at least another 6 weeks. I remember feeling anxious and frustrated about being away for longer than I'd anticipated, but he responded with support, reiterating that my job was to focus on treatment, not work.
As I approached my graduation from day treatment and prepared to go back to work, my boss and I discussed what I needed upon my return: less stress, more flexibility with my hours, more predictability in my projects. There was a mutual understanding that even once I was back in the "real world," my priority had to be my health, my ongoing outpatient treatment, and my recovery.
Before I returned to the office, I sent an email to all of my colleagues outlining how they could support me during my transition back. While I was aware that I couldn't protect myself from diet culture forever, I knew that I needed to be proactive in getting the support that I needed. Here's what I suggested:
- Avoid talking about diets, calories, and labeling foods as "healthy" vs. "unhealthy." (All food is good food!)
- Don't make comments about weight, shape, or size (mine, yours, or other people's). Even comments like "you look healthy/better" are misconstrued in my brain.
- Don't tell me about exercise, running, walking, races, etc. I'm still on a restricted exercise plan, and it's difficult to hear about other people's physical activity when I'm not allowed to partake.
- Eat lunch with me! I have to eat lunch at the same time every day, and it might help to have lunch buddies to hold me accountable.
My organization recognized that giving me space during treatment, and giving me extra support as I began my recovery, was ultimately an investment in me. I will forever be grateful for the care, flexibility, patience, and encouragement that I have received from my colleagues throughout my time in treatment, and now during my recovery. I'm fortunate to have an employer that values staff members' health, and recognizes that ultimately employees' wellbeing impacts productivity. My workplace helped me through the hardest time of my life, and I hope other organizations follow suit, because recovery is hard, but it's less difficult when everyone around you—including your employer—can support you in the way that you need.