How can workplaces support those suffering with an eating disorder at work?

Submitted by Dani, a Talk ED befriender

I’ve been invited to write this blog because more awareness needs to be raised around eating disorders, especially given that the number of diagnosed sufferers has increased since the start of the pandemic. Having experienced what it was like to have struggled with an eating disorder, and how difficult the recovery process can be, I’m determined to share what could have helped me in the hope of helping others.

I’m still amazed at how little knowledge there is about eating disorders across workplaces. It’s 2022 and mental health is a topic that countless businesses are committed to supporting.  Eating disorders are mental health conditions – so where do they fit in?

It’s estimated that around 1.6 million people in the UK are directly affected by eating disorders, with numbers rapidly increasing throughout the past 18 months, resulting in over 21,000 hospital admissions according to NHS Digital Data.

These high numbers mean that absolutely anyone could be at risk of developing, or currently suffering, with an eating disorder – your friends, family members and work colleagues.

People often hold the assumption that it’s easy to spot an individual who has a difficult relationship with food, however the reality is very different. We need to consciously let go of misconceptions because an eating disorder can be challenging to identify unless you are aware of the signs and behaviours.

Having previously suffered with bulimia for a number of years, I know how difficult it can be to live with an eating disorder whilst trying to manage your day job. It’s not just about food and managing weight – eating disorders come with huge amounts of anxiety, bouts of depression, low self-esteem, exhaustion and weakness, amongst an array of other symptoms. The pandemic has made our workloads heavier, for many, the boundaries between work life and home life are blurred – and for someone with an eating disorder, the stress of a heavier workload can be detrimental.

Initially this blog was aimed at guiding the individual, however we’d make a much bigger impact as a society if we didn’t put all of the responsibility onto the person who is struggling.

In 2022, we live in an age where employers are required to ensure that employees and colleagues feel safe and supported, yet there seems to be little guidance about how to support colleagues with eating disorders.


So where can employers start?

1) Education
Invest in courses or education materials to teach leaders and managers about eating disorders. There’s no need to be an expert in the field, however possessing some knowledge will support managers with their understanding and help them to recognise whether an individual is potentially suffering.

2) Cultivate an open, safe environment
The majority of individuals who suffer from an eating disorder will do their best to hide it, or may feel uncomfortable discussing it. Work on creating a safe environment which encourages open conversation and the space for individuals to share their experience, if they are ready to.

3) Avoid conversations about dieting and food
if you suspect that your colleague could potentially be suffering from an eating disorder, try to ensure that conversations don’t revolve around food and avoid commenting on what people are/aren’t eating. You’ll be surprised at how many people make comments about their colleagues’ food at work. At the same time, refrain from encouraging them to eat as this could be triggering and cause anxiety.

4) Be careful when talking about exercise
Exercise is great and it’s fantastic to motivate each other as work colleagues, however if one of your colleagues is suffering from an eating disorder, they are likely to have an unhealthy relationship with exercise. This means they will exercise excessively to burn calories, so competitive conversations around exercise can potentially be triggering for the individual or cause them to push themselves too far.

5) Refrain from using ‘words of encouragement’
This may sound odd, if your work colleague is in recovery it’s only natural to feel proud of them and want to motivate them. Of course it’s ok to show support, however be mindful of the words you are using. Avoid phrases like; “you’re looking really healthy now”, “you look much better with some weight on”, although you are being kind, it could discourage the individual and cause them to feel paranoid that they have put on a noticeable amount of weight. I often remember instantly restricting my food and increasing my activity levels as soon as someone mentioned how healthy I looked.

6) Be flexible around working hours
Be mindful that your colleague may need time off for appointments with GP s or therapists. As well as appointments, they will potentially take some time off sick if going through a tough period. The recovery process can be slow and include lapses affecting the individuals attendance and performance at work.

Eating disorders are complex and not easy to understand, however if you’re open to learning about them and making slight adjustments in the workplace, your business will provide it’s colleagues with the support they need to feel comfortable at work, enabling them a better chance to succeed.

If you would like to learn more about supporting people affected by eating disorders in your workplace, please get in touch. If your organisation would like to partner with Talk ED and support our work as well as your own employees, find out how to get involved.

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