A mentor recently told me about a trainee teacher who she believed had "not yet grasped the reality of teaching". The trainee, she said, was taking a full hour to sit down and eat lunch every day. The mentor contrasted this with her own experience: a lunch of crisps or a Mars bar after school – how was the trainee fitting in all that time in the middle of the day?
Shortly after, I saw this kind of discussion echoed on Twitter, where teachers were humblebragging about how the Easter holidays were reintroducing them to the concept of mealtimes.
Our profession is starting to recognise the scale of mental health difficulty in the students we teach, including those who suffer from eating disorders. However, we are clearly failing to recognise that eating disorders track sufferers into adulthood, meaning that teachers can be caught up in the cycle of relapse and recovery alongside students.
This needs to change.
Quick read: How to support pupils with eating disorders
Quick listen: Dr Tara Porter discusses eating disorders in schools
Want to know more? BEAT guidance on eating disorders in the workplace
Eating disorders can be hard to detect in the workplace as they do not always lead to a notable dip in performance until a significant physical decline has occurred. Some sufferers become incredibly productive, taking on additional activities, especially around mealtimes.
The drive to overschedule and ensure that there is no time to think about food is a tendency that can be (accidentally) enabled by a busy school environment. For many, the voice of the illness comes to the fore in times of stress and seems to offer a means of escape and a simplification of the complexities in hand; in reality, it does nothing of the kind.
Eating disorders in schools
We know that students need considerable support in order to recover from an eating disorder; the same is true for teachers. That requires an open, caring line manager, an approachable HR department and a supportive headteacher.
As colleagues, we need to be courageous enough to raise our concerns. Eating disorder sufferers are rarely able to recover alone and in the grip of relapse, the voice of the eating disorder is likely to be louder than the one that knows that help is needed. This is why trusted colleagues and friends can play an important role in advising sufferers to seek help.
Treatment takes time and focus. It may well be possible to access outpatient treatment and continue to work with release time for appointments, but treatment might also need to be more intensive and require a substantial leave of absence. Eating disorders can be intensely isolating, and having colleagues and managers who keep in touch in friendly and supportive, rather than work-focused ways, can make a real difference.
People will return to work at different stages of recovery and schools need to be flexible in their support. Recognising that recovery can involve a rigid adherence to a meal plan can be helpful.
Colleagues might need to have meal times protected from duties, clubs and meetings and may also need access to a private space to eat, a place to store food or understanding regarding withdrawal from community meal settings or residential trips.
On an emotional level, the experience of an eating disorder can trigger feelings of shame and guilt, and the positive acknowledgement of a colleague’s return to work – “It’s great to have you back” – while steering clear of any comments on about “looking well”, can mean a lot.
Supporting staff with eating disorders can be a sensitive and complex endeavour. However, the same cluster of traits that predispose people to the condition – willpower, self-control and a drive to achieve – can, when positively harnessed, be equally aligned with leadership and professional success.
With support, understanding and flexibility, teachers with experience of eating disorders can be invaluable, empathetic additions to any school community.
For helpful advice on this area, please refer to BEAT guidance on eating disorders in the workplace.
Dr Kristina Jackets is a teacher and PGCE lecturer