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29 Jun 2022
by Elizabeth Simon

4 ways employers can help workers suffering from eating disorders

More than 1 million people in the UK are estimated to suffer from eating disorders. Employers have an important role to play in promoting mental health in this area

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Binge eating disorder is a serious condition where people use food as a coping mechanism, with food being consumed in a short period of time and affects an individual’s ability to control their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Unhealthy eating behaviours often have a effect on appearance, body weight concerns and over-exercising.

According to the eating disorder charity Beat, over 1 million people in the UK suffer from eating disorders, with binge eating disorder, bulimia, anorexia and avoidant or restrictive food intake being other serious forms of the condition.

Spotting the signs of eating disorders

There are many forms of eating disorders that can affect a person in their daily life, relationships and productivity at work:

• Cycles of binges, eating large amounts of food at once, sometimes followed by purges (forced vomiting or laxative use).
• Strict controls around eating and drinking – including the type of meal or snack, where you decide to eat or drink and the time of day you decide to eat.
• Distorted body image and a deep fear of gaining weight
• Feelings of disgust, shame or guilt related to eating or exercise
• Low self-esteem, irritability and mood swings

How to support employees who may have eating disorders

It’s important for businesses to have a deeper understanding of supporting employees with not just their mental wellbeing, but their physical wellbeing as well. Here are some ways you can support employees who may find it difficult to cope with an eating disorder, which could affect their productivity and performance at work:

1. Listen & Educate

It can be challenging for someone to open up about how they’re feeling and how eating affects them in their daily life. If an employee decides to talk to you about their thoughts and feelings, don’t judge, lend an ear. Sometimes the most significant step of all is them admitting how they are feeling to someone, especially if they have been battling with their eating disorder alone.

Listen intently, be patient and educate yourself about what they may be dealing with. Psycho-education plays a big role in the recovery of that person, so it can only help you to understand their issues too. Remember you are not taking the role of a clinician; explain how to get professional help and encourage them to do so as soon as possible.

2. Positive adjustments

Treating an employee differently will only make them feel worse. Positive adjustments may be needed to support an individual – and managers need to act without making the employee feel like a burden. Where possible, carry on communicating with them as you would any employee. It also helps to ground them and bring a sense of ‘normal’ in their lives.

3. Be conscious of the language you use

Be aware that an eating disorder is a mental health condition, where people have a difficult relationship with food. This can become a way to feel in control of, or cope with emotions and other situations. A disturbance in someone’s eating can be the result of an underlying issue.

It is important to be conscious of our language. Body related comments, no matter how flattering, could do more harm than good. Using compliments related to someone’s body image, weight, or shape to try and support them when they are struggling with an eating disorder can be a major trigger of negative emotions and behaviours, especially for those struggling with disordered eating.

Shifting the tone of the conversation to be more focused on a person’s overall health and wellbeing can be helpful. Asking how someone is doing and expressing that you are pleased to see them focuses more on the whole person and ensures people do not feel that they are just seen as having a problem with eating.

4. Psychiatric Care through cognitive behavioural therapy

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a form of psychiatric care adapted to support and offer treatment to those who suffer from eating disorders. Psychiatry will provide a comprehensive assessment, diagnosis, treatment recommendations and medication where appropriate and ongoing review.

CBT allows those at senior management levels to have a deeper understanding of how binge eating disorders can affect their workforce. By having that deeper understanding of the ways in which eating disorders affect employees, businesses and organisations can make important strides in promoting good mental and physical health among their workforce and ensure employees receive the support they need to overcome it.

Remember, eating disorders are not about food, or weight even if this is how it is presented. It is about retaining a sense of emotional control.

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