How to support employees with eating disorders
Between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder. Who is affected? What are the warning signs in the workplace?
Do employers have a duty of care to step in? And how do managers and HR address the problem? Keep reading to find out.
Who is affected by eating disorders?
According to Beat, one of the UK’s eating disorder charities, almost one in ten (6.4%) adults display signs of an eating disorder, whether it’s eating too little (anorexia), eating too much (over-eating), inducing vomiting (bulimia), or following restrictive diets that avoid essential nutrients (orthorexia).
Women are most impacted by eating disorders and have higher rates of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder than men. However, around 25% of those affected by an eating disorder are men.
What are the warning signs in the workplace?
As a complex and in some cases debilitating psychological condition, eating disorders have a serious impact upon an individual’s emotional and physical wellbeing. As an employer, understanding how to support an employee with an eating disorder can bring with it a unique set of challenges that should be approached in a sensitive manner.
Employees struggling with eating disorders will often seek to conceal their illness. However, there are some warning signs that employers should be aware of, which may prompt an initial conversation. These include:
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Distorted beliefs about body size
- Excessive exercising or agitation
- Tiredness or difficulty concentrating
- Frequent visits to the toilet after eating
- Obsessive behaviour regarding food, for example constantly talking about food or specific rituals
- Withdrawal or isolation
- Lack of focus and attention
- Lack of self-esteem and confidence
- Lack of energy
- Shaking, trembling hands (a sign of low blood sugar levels)
- Mental and physical exhaustion
- Depression and anxiety
- Increased sickness absence (due to their low immune system)
- Hospitalisation (in extreme cases)
Beyond the symptoms that affect performance at work, the employee may also experience drastic weight loss or gain over a short period of time, dental problems, and hair loss.
Should you step in if you suspect an employee has an eating disorder?
Managers have a duty of care to raise a concern about an employee’s mental ill-health and eating disorders are no exception. It’s a complicated and sensitive subject to bring up with someone but this alone shouldn’t be a deterrent for intervention.
Those who suffer from an eating disorder can sit in one of two groups: those who deny they have a problem and desist help, and those who know they have a problem but can’t get out of the habit despite the help they are given.
How do you address the problem?
Concerns that an employee’s performance may be being impacted by an eating disorder should be addressed privately by their line manager or HR. This conversation should be focused on their performance, looking at what can be done to facilitate improvement or to address any underlying issues.
- Try not to leap to conclusions – there could be other explanations for poor performance.
- Highlight your concerns supportively and encourage the employee to speak openly.
- Address any worries the employee may have about the consequences of having an eating disorder on their job and reassure them they are a valued team member and that you are offering support, not judgement.
Avoiding discrimination claims
Eating disorders will often constitute disabilities under the Equality Act 2010, entailing a duty to make reasonable adjustments. However, it’s important that managers avoid trying to counsel an employee and assume a diagnosis, as this may lead to a discrimination claim.
The employer’s role is to provide a supportive environment and, where appropriate, to signpost the employee to external resources.
Conversations should be driven by the employee with input from their GP or occupational health and remain confidential. Where possible employers should provide employees with access to free resources, which they can utilise to seek guidance and support for both physical and mental health related issues. These may include an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), one-to-one counselling sessions with a fully qualified counsellor or charities such as Beat and MIND.
Learn more about Employee Assistance Programmes.