Hope Virgo - Mental Health at Work

Recovering anorexic, Hope Virgo, on changing attitudes towards mental health issues in the workplace

Posted 2 years ago

Recently, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Hope Virgo – former anorexic, mental health campaigner and author of “Stand Tall Little Girl” to understand what it is like to juggle coping with a mental health disorder while working.

Hope Virgo, is a leading advocate for people with eating disorders; described by Richard Mitchell, CEO of Sherwood Forest Hospital, as “sharing a very powerful story with a huge impact”.

Hope helps employers such as schools, hospitals and businesses deal with the rising tide of mental health issues which affects one in four people and costs employers between £33 and £42 billion annually.

She is also a recognised media spokesperson having appeared on various shows including BBC Newsnight, Good Morning Britain, Sky News and BBC News.

For four years, Hope managed to keep her issue hidden, keeping dark secrets from friends and family. But then, on 17th November 2007, Hope’s world was flipped on it’s head. She was admitted to a mental health hospital in a very critical state.

Her skin was yellowing and her heart was failing- she was barely recognizable. Forced to leave her family and friends, the hospital became her home. Over the next year, at her lowest ebb, Hope faced the biggest challenge of her life. She had to find the courage to beat her anorexia.

Thankfully, this story has a positive ending as Hope graduated from her hospital bed and is now devoting her time to raising awareness of mental health in the workplace and leading a community of sufferers to help one another through their issues.

Aside from the daily torture of suffering with the illness itself, we were keen to understand the issues within a work context specifically. We assume we’re not alone in feeling that we don’t really know what the right approach is to empathising with and supporting someone in need, so our questions focused on matters from this perspective specifically.

Over to Hope…

Knowing what to wear

Some mornings I get up and try on my entire wardrobe and feel huge – I label this a “fat day”. It is these days when I often feel completely dis-heartened to go to work as the whole debacle is so stressful.

Thankfully, I am now in a place where I can still go to the office and switch off from these feelings but when I first started working it was harder. If someone confides in you about how they are feeling, try to support them as best as you can – letting them know that you are available to speak anytime they need, even if it is difficult for you to relate to their circumstances.

Events where food is involved

Triangle sandwiches – it’s funny how they can cause so much difficulty but eating out for client meetings and events can be tough.

I can recall situations where people have remarked about what I was or wasn’t eating – why I wasn’t having any cake, for example! I felt extremely anxious and self-conscious, so please try to be considerate of different people’s preferences and diets!

Also, I always remember feeling a huge relief when I could review a menu in advance of an event/lunch/dinner, or was presented with a few choices, as that way I could arrive knowing that I wouldn’t have to face the uncertainty and potential embarrassment of having to make excuses.

Understanding and the ability to speak up

When I started taking Citalopram (anti-depressant) I had really bad side effects. I was not sleeping and felt really sick a lot of the time – I didn’t want to tell anyone at work so I battled on. It made working really hard and I didn’t feel like I could tell my manager.

The attitude of organisations towards mental health has improved, but in many companies there is still a long way to go. People need to feel empowered to talk openly about their issues in 1-2-1 situations without fear of it affecting their career prospects or them being judged.

Before jumping to conclusions, judging or making snap decisions over a member of your team, take the time to speak at length away from the desk and create an environment where they feel comfortable opening up.

Feeling valued at work

When your sense of self-worth is already so brittle, negative outcomes can have a larger than normal impact on your state of mind. When life outside of work is not well, you can question your very being leading to a feeling of dangerously low self-esteem.

I recall failures at sparking a response of increased calorie-counting and wanting to exercise more, as my ability to do these things well comforted me and helped me re-gain credibility with myself – despite the fact that I now realise they were actually doing more harm than good.

Whilst when under the usual pressure of work, in the heat of the moment, it is difficult to retain this perspective, it is always worth considering whether the other persons state of mind could result in them having an unanticipated reaction to feedback/criticism.

Is it possible to take a deep breath and first consider the full context of the situation, having a word in private perhaps?

Hope Virgo is available for speaking assignments where she provides a raw, intimate account of her journey with mental health, as well as providing more detail on how co-workers and employers can better support their workforce through the increasingly complex landscape of mental health issues.

You can find her at: www.hopevirgo.com,  https://www.facebook.com/Hopevirgoauthor/ and @HopeVirgo on Twitter and Instagram. Her book is available on Amazon here