Each year we are making progress on talking more openly about issues that affect our mental wellbeing – from stress, to addiction, to bullying, to relationships, to life-long conditions. The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is body image – how we think and feel about our bodies – and this can lead us to thrive or hide in the workplace.
While it may feel internal, it has always played out in how we want to ‘appear’ in the workplace, and it is intensifying with social media and the pressure to look a certain way.
Why is image so important, and how can we bring our whole selves to work and be proud of who we are?
For the Civil Service, and the 430,000 people who work here, our identity, what we stand for and the difference we make, gives us meaning and purpose.
Being ourselves at work creates diverse and inclusive cultures, uniting teams and empowering individuals. Having this acceptance and trust can improve our creativity, decision-making and ability to perform and progress in our careers.
This positivity may feel normal until mental ill health or the work environment stops us from being the person we want to be – when we become uncomfortable in our own skin. Then, the difference between thriving and hiding feels real, as it affects our sense of self and the image we worked so hard to build.
Body image can cause low self-esteem, vulnerability and isolation. These emotions aren’t left at home, they come to work too. It may be difficult to know how to help, but sufferers are the experts in their conditions and what support they need. Sometimes the best way of helping is to listen, understand and be comfortable talking about mental health.
I want to thank Michelle Anderson, from HM Courts & Tribunals Service, for sharing her story of how body-shaming has affected her mental health from childhood to adulthood. Her journey highlights how body-image worries pose an ever-present risk to our wellbeing.
It started around the age of nine. ‘Friends’ at school started making comments about my weight. My dad started talking about me gaining ‘puppy fat’. At that stage I did not mind being in photos, but, as I got older and more conscious of the things people said, I started disappearing from family photos. It got to the stage family had to take sneaky photos of me just to capture the moment.
My weight problem became so ingrained in my psyche that throughout adulthood I have always been body-conscious. I always felt fat, wearing baggy clothes to cover up so people could not see how big I was. Constantly going on a diet, I’d successfully lose stones, start to feel better, then something would happen to start the comfort eating again and the weight would pile back on.
Even when I was asked to be a bridesmaid, I hated the fact that the dress I wore had to be ordered in a size bigger than I normally wear. I remember the lady in the shop telling me: “That’s just the way they size them. We always have to go up a size.”
I now look back at rare photos of myself from years ago and wish I still had that ‘weight problem’. I’m not sure I will ever be happy about my body image and now worry about my 10- and 12-year-old girls. They have started making comments about how fat they are. This is probably a learned behaviour from me, which makes me sad. I tell them every day how beautiful they are.
Wearing baggy clothes at work undermined my confidence. In my mind it was somehow linked to my performance and ability. If I wore baggy clothes I didn’t feel smart. And if I didn’t feel smart I was no good at my job.
I have learned that I can look smart and not emphasise my size. Now, I feel so much better in my work clothes, and that shows in my confidence.
I am used to managing my depression, but that support and understanding cannot come from within me. At work, I talk about my symptoms and how they affect me. That way my colleagues understand why I might be quiet or withdrawn and need some space. It takes the pressure off me to ‘perform’. It takes the pressure off me to ‘wear a mask’. I am a mum, a daughter, a wife, a civil servant and so much more.
Six ideas to help you
Whether it is body image issues, anxiety or any other mental health condition, help is available. It is inclusive support, not intrusive support. Share what you need to share to get better and flourish. Here are some ideas to help you on your journey:
- have a discussion with your manager on what support you need to resolve your stress or manage your condition
- chat to a Mental Health First Aider about how you’re feeling and what support is available.
- join a Civil Service or organisational employee network to discuss your situation in a safe environment with people who can empathise, such as the Cross-Government Mental Health Network
- use your volunteering days to support a charity or cause that resonates with you
- make the most of flexible working to attend counselling, meet your career coach, or de-stress through exercise and mindfulness
- prioritise your happiness and wellbeing by designing an action plan on how to feel good about yourself and fulfil your potential.
What’s happening this week
The Civil Service is using the power of storytelling to break the mental health stigma by launching its This is Me video series, created by the Civil Service Leadership Academy.
During the week, organisations are hosting expert speakers and wellbeing workshops to discuss the different aspects of body confidence and how to feel good and thrive. Buildings are lighting up green and more and more people are wearing green ribbons to show their support for mental health.