Eating Disorders at work - Supporting an employee

Eating disorders are potentially life-threatening conditions which affect everyday life, including both mental and physical well being. With the way celebrities, models and other people of interest are portrayed in the media, it is not surprising that the number of both women and men experiencing an eating disorder is increasing. At least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S and every 62 minutes at least one person dies as a direct result. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness so it is crucial employers take it seriously when supporting their staff.

What eating disorders are there?

When eating disorders are mentioned, it is generally assumed to be ‘anorexia’, however there are numerous different eating disorders.

  • Anorexia Nervosa. Anorexia Nervosa, also known as anorexia, includes a severe fear of gaining weight, an unrealistic body image and refusal to maintain a healthy weight. Those suffering anorexia count calories and eat far fewer than the recommended daily allowance. Anorexia can have life-threatening consequences including brain damage, organ failure, bone loss, heart disease and infertility.
  • Bulimia Nervosa. Bulimia Nervosa, also known as bulimia is an eating disorder where the person affected goes through a repeated cycle of binge eating and vomiting. They can also exercise excessively or use of laxatives to make up for the over eating. People with bulimia fear putting on weight and are unhappy with their body image, but their weight might be normal. Some might even be overweight. Bulimia can result in severe dehydration, gastrointestinal and heart problems.
  • Binge eating disorder. People with binge eating disorder will constantly lose control over their eating. This can happen when they are upset, stressed, or anxious. Binge eating disorder is different from bulimia in that people that have it will not induce vomiting or do anything else to compensate for the binge. People with this condition tend to be obese. This can make them feel guilty, worthless, and embarrassed; which can trigger another binge.

What causes eating disorders?

Eating disorders are complex, and there are many factors that can contribute. There are 3 types of factors that can trigger an eating disorder.

  • Biological. Biological factors are to do with your body including balance of hormones, genetics, and lifestyle.

  • Psychological. Psychological factors are to do with your opinion of yourself and your views of the world. This can include a negative body image and low self-esteem.

  • Environmental. These can include family, profession, hobbies, trauma, peer pressure, stress and the media.

Employees with eating disorders will rarely openly display their symptoms and often excel at their job. There are typically three ways an eating disorder may be brought to employers or colleagues attention.

  • The person affected may talk about it. This doesn’t happen very often, but it is a positive sign. Listen to them and let them open up. Be compassionate about their problems and don't try to correct their body image or other beliefs they may have. Simply listen without judgement. After you have listened use the way they are feeling (not their weight) to encourage them to seek help.
  • Another way which may be sign to employers is to notice signs and symptoms. Some physical signs, such as excessive weight loss or gain, may be apparent but the first noticeable sign is usually a change in behaviour or personality. People with an eating disorder may appear stressed, anxious, withdrawn and irritable.
  • Finally, the person's co-workers may become concerned and inform the employer.

People who have an eating disorder can take a long time to fully recover. They may need to attend many appointments. Employers should respect this and be flexible with working hours. Eating disorders are illnesses, so policies and procedures around staff illness will be relevant.

Are employers supporting workers who have an eating disorder?

Beat did a survey in December 2015 and January 2016, that found that stigma and discrimination in the workplace can make recovery difficult. 32% of those taking the survey felt they were stigmatised or discriminated against because of their eating disorder, with 29% saying their employer was not helpful in their recovery. Employers also have a legal responsibility. Under the Equality Act 2010 employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments in order to accommodate employees with a disability, which includes mental illnesses such as eating disorders.

According to employee benefits, the first step in supporting your colleague is to talk to them. Decide who is best to have a discreet and private conversation with the employee to see how they are coping generally. Someone close to them who has their trust is best. It will take time for them to open up. Where the person’s health is clearly at risk, for example, having difficulty concentrating, feeling faint at work, complaining of chest pains, then it is important to follow the relevant policies about dealing with illness at work. The priority is to help the person get the appropriate medical treatment.

It is important not to jump to conclusions, even if the employee is displaying signs of an eating disorder. Eating disorders require medical attention. If it becomes obvious that the employee has health problems that are having a clear impact (fainting spells), speak to the employee in private. There may be other reasons for these symptoms. Be sure to offer support while respecting the person’s privacy. This should be framed in terms of being concerned about the person's wellbeing, not as an attempt to diagnose or label the person.

For more information on how to support a colleague experiencing an eating disorder, visit:

Sam GlassComment