Eating Disorders In The Workplace

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What are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are serious mental health disorders that can cause medical, emotional, and social difficulties. They are characterised by a persistent pattern of disordered eating behaviours and thought patterns, that create negative physical and psychological effects. The most common types of eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and other specified feeding or eating disorders (OSFED).

Employees who suffer from an eating disorder will experience a wide range of physical and psychological symptoms. These can range from changes in body weight, disturbed sleep patterns, fatigue, feelings of guilt or shame, anxiety, depression, as well as digestive issues such as constipation or diarrhoea. If left untreated, eating disorders can have serious long-term consequences , and so early intervention is essential.  

Eating Disorder

By offering support, understanding and providing resources to employees who may be struggling with an eating disorder, employers can show their commitment to wellbeing in the workplace. This could include offering access to counselling services where individuals can get professional advice tailored to their needs; offering regular wellbeing supervision to review reasonable adjustments without fear of judgement; and establishing safe spaces where individuals feel comfortable talking about the challenges they are facing.   

Ultimately, supporting someone with an eating disorder is a complex process requiring patience and understanding from everyone involved. It is essential that employers take the time to learn how best to support these individuals so they can continue working productively while managing their condition effectively.

Signs that Employees May be Struggling with an Eating Disorder

An understanding of the common signs and symptoms of eating disorders can help you identify employees who might need support.  

Below is a list of key indicators that your employee could have a problem with eating:   

– Disrupted eating patterns – If an employee has started skipping meals or eating alone or at unusual mealtimes, this could be indicative of an eating disorder such as anorexia.   

  

– Unusual food choices – If you notice your employee has begun restricting their diet or avoiding certain types of foods, this could be another sign of disordered eating.   

  

– Weight loss or gain – Rapid weight loss or gain is one of the most noticeable physical signs that someone is struggling with an eating disorder. Significant changes in weight should always be taken seriously.   

  

– Fatigue – The significant disruption to eating habits and nutrition caused by eating disorders, can significantly impact energy levels. Both physical and mental fatigue can impact both their work performance and overall health.   

  

– Social withdrawal – When someone is dealing with an eating disorder, they may start isolating themselves from their colleagues and avoiding social activities.   

  

– Changes in moods – Eating disorders typically cause emotional disturbances such as anxiety, depression, irritability and appearing disinterested and withdrawn. 

  

– Changes in presentation – Employees with eating disorders may begin wearing clothes that appear very baggy, and inappropriate for the weather e.g. wearing jumpers and long sleeves in a heatwave.  

  

The above list provides just some examples of potential warning signs that your employee may have a problem with their mental health related to food and nutrition. Accessing training to help further your understanding is vital to help you support employees, as if offering access to professional help.

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Challenges of Working Whilst Struggling with an Eating Disorder

Working whilst struggling with an eating disorder can pose a range of challenges for individuals in the workplace. Eating disorders are complicated and distressing, and those struggling with them can find it difficult to manage in the workplace.   

Employees with eating disorders may struggle to disclose this to line managers and supervisors at work. This could be due to being in denial and believing there is nothing wrong. They may not feel comfortable talking about their mental health. Shame and guilt are common amongst individuals with eating disorders, and they may fear judgement or repercussions from disclosing the information. Even if someone has disclosed their eating disorder, there may be stigma present in the wrokplace, which can make it difficult for the employee to feel supported and secure in their role.   

Employees with eating disorders may also struggle to manage workloads or keep up with deadlines due to fatigue and preoccupation with thoughts related to food and weight.  This can put immense pressure on employees, as they try to juggle multiple tasks whilst managing their mental health conditions.   

In addition, employees who are dealing with an eating disorder may find it hard to maintain relationships at work due to changes in behaviour associated with the illness. Social pressures can make it hard for employees suffering from an eating disorder to open up about what they’re going through – leading them into isolation which could further worsen their situation over time.   

Due to the shame and poor self-esteem associated with eating disorders, it is essential that employers approach employees with compassion and empathy, and offer eating disorders training where appropriate.

Co-creating Wellbeing Plans

One-way employers can support employees with eating disorders is by co-creating wellbeing plans. A wellbeing plan is a tailored approach to helping an employee manage their mental health at work. While it’s important for employers to be familiar with the common signs and symptoms of various eating disorders, they should not make assumptions about an employee’s individual situation or course of treatment. A collaborative approach should be used that involves both the employer and the employee in creating the plan.   

  

  1. Start by having an open conversation with your employee about their needs and challenges. Ask how you can provide support, but also be mindful that talking about their illness may make them feel uncomfortable or vulnerable. 

  

  1. Identify proactive measures that will help ensure your employee remains productive and engaged while managing their disorder, such as flexible working hours or adjusting deadlines if needed. 

  

  1. Make sure your employee knows that they can talk to someone in confidence if needed.  This could involve connecting them with qualified counsellors or psychologists who have experience in working with people suffering from eating disorders, as well as providing them with information on local support groups or charity organisations specialising in this area of mental health care. 

  

  1. Setting up regular check-ins – both informal and formal – will allow you to monitor your employee’s progress and adjust the plan accordingly, ensuring that it evolves with time as their needs change. Regular reviews should include discussion around stress levels, workload, and reviewing workplace adjustments to ensure they are working as intended. 

  

  1. Discuss signs that line managers may observe in the individual that may indicate that they are struggling and agree how best they (manager) should respond to reduce distress and support the employee. 

Knowing where Professional Support is Available and How to Access It

It is vital that employers take steps to ensure that employees with eating disorders have access to professional support, whether through their employer or through being allowed to take time out of the workday to attend appointments.  

Knowing where professional help is available is important for anyone who may be struggling with an eating disorder, as well as for their family members, friends and colleagues. Receiving a formal diagnosis can be difficult and should not be necessary for employees to receive the support they deserve from their employer.  

Most people affected by an eating disorder will benefit from being referred to a specialist mental health support. This type of service may be provided either inpatient or outpatient depending on the severity of symptoms and needs of the patient.  

The NHS offers community-based services offering assessment, treatment and management plans tailored to individual needs. These services also provide specialist advice about nutrition and physical activity for people with severe forms of eating disorders. Similar services are also available in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – more information can be obtained via each country’s respective health departments or websites.   

Employers should also talk to their employee’s GP for advice on managing any other medical conditions associated with an eating disorder such as depression or anxiety that might affect the ability to work safely at their job role(s). Charities such as BEAT offer online support groups as well as personalised peer support sessions through their helplines from others who understand.   

As an employer you may feel it is important for your employee to access support, however it is important that they feel empowered and in control of this. Feeling out of control can exacerbate symptoms, so approach the topic with compassion and empathy.   

Managing with Compassion and Empathy

Eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, can result in deeply ingrained habits that require a great deal of patience and understanding. It is important to remember that with the right help, individuals can and do recover from eating disorders. Employees should be provided a supportive environment where they feel comfortable enough to discuss their difficulties openly. This should include access to professional assistance and educational resources to help them learn more about their condition and develop healthier coping strategies.

When it comes to workplace management, it is important to set clear expectations around performance and to adjust these where employees are struggling to reduce any unnecessary stress. Employers should provide reasonable accommodations when needed while also making sure that any requests do not pose a safety hazard or place too much burden on other colleagues. Employers should ensure that all employees are aware of available resources so they know where to access support should they need it. 

Eating disorders are complex conditions and simple suggestions such as “just eat” can be damaging and dismissive. As a manager, refrain from the urge to try to “fix” your employee or to say the “right thing”. However, being open-minded, reserving judgement and simply listening to your employee and trying to understand their distress can be invaluable.  

Managers should offer compassion, whilst acknowledging the parameters of their role, and not become over-involved. It is not your role to act as a counsellor, nor should you try to. However, being understanding, offering patience and empathy, can all help to build a trusting relationship which can create an environment where individuals feel comfortable discussing their needs so they can receive the support required for recovery.  

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