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Food For Thought

Say ‘Eating Disorder’ and images of painfully thin supermodels spring to mind. Most people think that if you don’t look like a stick insect, then you don’t have an eating disorder.

But did you know that around 85% of people with eating disorders are not even underweight? And people who suffer from these complex mental illnesses can be any age, colour or shape. Not just teenage girls.

For most, ‘eating disorder’ mean anorexia, a condition where sufferers starve themselves. But there are other conditions like Bulimia, where people eat then ‘purge’ and binge eating, where people eat to excess but do not purge. Find out more in a previous blog ‘Eating Disorders: It’s All Just Vanity’.

The shocking truth is that eating disorders take more lives than any other mental illness.

There is no one single cause eating disorders and they can develop at any time in a person’s life. They are often a way of coping with whatever difficulty a person may be experiencing, like stress, anxiety, depression, or feelings of guilt or shame.

We don’t really know how many people are affected by eating disorders in the UK, but the charity ‘Beat’ estimates the number to be around 1.6 million people. It is estimated that up to a quarter are male, but given the stigma, no one really knows as many men go undiagnosed.

It would seem they are more common than we think, and I’m pretty sure a large proportion of that number go to work.

That’s why I want to investigate the impact of eating disorders in the workplace.

What does it look like?

Employees who suffer from such disorders are quite tricky to spot. Evidence shows they experience very little difficulty at work, are often high performers, and will rarely exhibit symptoms. On the surface, all is under control.

But dig a little deeper and the research tells us this is often not the case. In fact, most will go to great lengths to avoid their disorder being noticed at work.

Anyone at any level in an organisation could be affected, and while work itself is unlikely to cause a disorder, we should consider the impact of work-related stress on an existing condition. Can that make it worse?

Short answer…Yes.

Spotting the signs:

Obvious risk factors include being subjected to bullying or criticism, or environments where high expectations and excessive pressure are the order of the day. Being a perfectionist and seeing things in black and white could also be a risk factor.

There are generally three ways that eating disorders might be brought to your attention:

  •   The person tells you.
  • A colleague has concerns and tells you.
  • You spot the signs. Physical changes like weight fluctuations and excuses at meal times for example. Changes in behaviour, increased stress and anxiety, social withdrawal, low self-esteem, mood swings, irritability, difficulty concentrating could be signs of something more going on. 

For managers, we know that talking to an employee about an eating disorder is not easy. I wrote a blog sharing some useful tips on how to broach difficult subjects around mental health: ‘We Need To Talk’. Obviously, it applies equally to eating disorders.

Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses, and as such may be regarded as a disability under the Equality Act 2010. Policies and procedures should reflect that, and reasonable adjustments made where necessary. Employees may need lengthy treatment or time off work to attend medical appointments for example.

Similarly, the eating disorder may not be their own but suffered by a child or family member. As a carer, these obligations and associated pressures can impact heavily on a person’s physical and mental wellbeing.

Flexible working policies that offer support are the order of the day.

Time counts

It has been shown that the sooner someone gets treatment, the more likely they are to make a full recovery. Rather frustratingly, figures show that on average, a person with an eating disorder will struggle on alone for around three years before seeking help. It’s clear that people need support and more awareness in the workplace, where we spend a third of our lives, clearly has a role to play. 

And here’s a statistic that I think proves we need to do more about this. A recent YouGov survey found that more than one in three adults (34%) in the UK could not name a single sign or symptom of an eating disorder. Wow.