How HR can help manage eating disorders in the workplaceby
In the wake of increased remote working, HR and wellbeing professionals need to educate themselves on how to spot the signs of an eating disorder, and put measures in place to help employees manage these debilitating mental illnesses.
According to Beat, the eating disorder charity, an estimated 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder. These are complex illnesses thought to be caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors and can include: bulimia, binge eating disorder, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED) and anorexia. The latter having the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
Eating disorders can affect any individual regardless of age, gender or weight. They can be extremely distressing and severely affect the quality of life for both the sufferers and those close to them. Feelings of shame are common and those affected often go to significant lengths to keep it hidden. However, full recovery from an eating disorder is possible with specialist help and support.
Whilst it is important to raise concerns with an individual, this needs to be approached with tact, sensitivity and in an appropriate confidential environment
Beat also reports that there has been a doubling of people needing eating disorder treatment, describing the pandemic as a ‘perfect storm’ for eating disorders. Remote working means that this complex mental illness can easily go un-noticed by employers and colleagues.
What are the signs?
As sufferers tend to hide their illness, it can be very difficult to spot the signs, but there are some signs and particularly noticing changes in the following areas after a period of remote working may suggest an eating disorder:
- Rapid weight loss or gain
- Dieting or restrictive eating for no apparent reason
- Preoccupation with food, exercise, weight or body shape
- A change in eating behaviour or fluctuations
- Regularly visiting the toilet after meals
- Avoidance of social situations, particularly when food is involved
- Physical signs such as malnutrition, poor circulation, dizziness, palpitations, fainting or pallor
- Excessive exercise or being unable to sit still
- Other mental health problems
It is also important to remember that an eating disorder is a disability, therefore the Equality Act 2010 applies
However, these signs are only potential indicators, and concerns may be completely unfounded. Whilst it is important to raise concerns with an individual, this needs to be approached with tact, sensitivity and in an appropriate confidential environment. As with many mental illnesses, individuals often don’t open up straight away, so it’s important that the individual is reassured that ongoing support is available and that those concerned continue to ask how they are from time to time.
What good workplace support looks like
Employers can begin by raising awareness of eating disorders as a serious complex area of mental illness, tackling stigmas and misunderstanding, and fostering a culture of support. This may include appreciating that conversations about weight, diets and body image can be unhelpful as can focussing on food.
It is also important to remember that an eating disorder is a disability, therefore the Equality Act 2010 applies. Reasonable adjustments could include: flexibility in allowing time off for appointments, working hours or extended lunch or other breaks, consideration of factors such as a place to eat in private or avoiding lunch meetings or other work events involving eating socially.
Managers and colleagues should be aware that individuals with eating disorders may fluctuate in their performance, suffer from fatigue, have difficulty concentrating and be more susceptible to illness due to a reduced immune system.
Many organisations have trained Mental Health First Aid volunteers within their workforce and these individuals can play an important part of a mental wellbeing strategy, however they must have good quality support services and resources to signpost individuals to.
There is a wide range of support services available to employers either directly or via group insurance products
Where can you access support services?
There is a wide range of support services available to employers either directly or via group insurance products. Employers would be wise to take the time to look in detail at the content of mental health support services, some can be very light touch, with complex conditions such as eating disorders excluded.
Good quality support services can include access to experienced registered mental health nurses providing long-term, confidential, one-to-one support which is an important factor in the recovery from an eating disorder. They can also be the vital link in organising tailored therapies, signposting to specialist charities and support groups and helping individuals to navigate the NHS, all ensuring that the individual has the best opportunity to make an effective and sustained recovery.
Interested in this topic? Read Mental Health: The importance of person-led support for serious conditions.
Christine Husbands is managing director of RedArc, a service that provides personal nurse advisers for people experiencing illness, disability, trauma or bereavement.
Christine spent the initial part of her career in financial roles and she has held several board positions in Financial Services and is a Chartered Director. During her time...