The past year has been a challenging time for most, but for those battling eating disorders it has been particularly tough. Gillian Whitworth has been a driving force in the launch of the Civil Service Eating Disorders Network and in February won a Civil Service Award for her work to raise awareness on an issue that is still a source of stigma.
Whitworth was one of three founders of an eating-disorder support group at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in 2018 – the first of its kind in the civil service. After joining the Fast Stream and moving to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, she continued awareness-raising work but also kept signposting people to the monthly support groups run by her colleagues in BEIS.
Whitworth’s recent Civil Service Award win, in the Health & Wellbeing category, recognised her “extraordinary commitment, courage and compassion” in highlighting ways that eating disorders can present in the workplace and ways colleagues can help.
“To start with I was nervous about putting myself centre stage with those experiences – there is still quite a lot of stigma around eating disorders and mental health within our society,” Whitworth told CSW. “But the response has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Whitworth said her experience from the past three years showed that civil servants seeking support and advice often have different needs.
“Broadly, the CSEDN interacts with three groups of people,” she said. “The people who’ve had personal experiences in the past or who are going through something currently. Then there are those who’ve supported a family member, or someone really close to them – so they have that second-hand experience.
“The third group are the people who don’t necessarily have that personal contact but who want to create a more kind and supportive workplace.”
A shared experience of many of the Civil Service Eating Disorders Network co-founders was supportive line managers. Making sure line managers are well-informed and able to signpost staff to help is “critical”, according to Whitworth.
“We know that when people talk about problems that they’re having around eating or seeking reasonable adjustments, their line manager is a key relationship – it can make a difference,” she said.
“The CSEDN have developed resources particularly aimed at managers to support them in having those conversations in a sensitive way.”
The CSEDN launched during Eating Disorders Awareness Week in March and had more than 300 people take part in webinars and other events. One was an interactive session on Teams with a range of experts, where people posed questions to speakers using the Slido app.
“That access to people that understand and have expertise has been invaluable for people, especially where they can’t access that help in everyday life,” Whitworth said.
“Bringing that expertise to civil servants and making sure people can understand how to support themselves or how to support others is a crucial aim of our network.”
Whitworth said the switch to virtual support group meetings necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic was a great opportunity to reach more people – not only across the UK but also in British embassies and high commissions, connecting people in different environments but with similar experiences.
But she said that while it had been “a real joy” to see a more people coming together to support one another, the pandemic had been a “negative and painful” experience for people suffering with eating disorders in particular.
“Certain things during this pandemic are quite triggering for people affected by eating disorders,” she said. “In the first lockdown many people talked about stockpiling food, which can be troubling for someone who is struggling with bingeing. Or lockdowns and restrictions can disrupt someone’s routine – that can really heighten someone’s anxiety.”
Whitworth said the rates for people who had been seeking help either from NHS services or national eating-disorder charity Beat, had increased significantly over the past 12 months.
“Being able to reach more people has definitely helped. But people are suffering,” she said. “It’s been a difficult, challenging time for a lot of people that we’re speaking to.”
Whitworth said that anyone who would like to get involved with the CSEDN is welcome to contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
How did it feel to win the Health & Wellbeing Award?
“I was slightly overwhelmed, but in a good way. It’s been a journey over the past few years and it’s quite an emotional for me – it felt great to see our hard work recognised. All three finalists in my category were mental-health initiatives: it shows that the civil service is clearly becoming a more supportive environment to talk about mental health.”
How did you celebrate the awards win?
“Sharing the good news with my family! I had a joint celebration with my partner as he passed medical school the same day – we danced around to a celebratory playlist on Spotify.”
What lessons for other parts of the civil service are there from your experience with the network?
“Normalise talking about really difficult topics and creating safe spaces to ask questions and learn about our colleagues’ difficult experiences. We need to get comfortable – as people and as colleagues – supporting one another and sharing openly how we are feeling and when we are struggling. And don’t be afraid to stand out and tell your own story, even if it’s been difficult and you’ve overcome challenges. Someone will recognise themselves in what you’ve said.”
Who nominated you for the award?
“One of my friends in the FCDO. Last year, I did a presentation during Eating Disorder Awareness Week during his first week on our team. He said he’d found that really powerful. So it wasn’t a bombshell: we know each other!”