Eating disorders can be a very taboo topic that have a lot of incorrect connotations, and because of this, many employers may not consider them to be a cause for concern in the workplace.
But the reality of eating disorders is that they affect around 1.25 million people in the UK, and almost 30 million in the US. Most assume they are something that are exclusive to teenage girls, but surprisingly they are known to affect adults more than younger people, with 25% of sufferers being men. Therefore, it is very likely that some employees may be suffering silently, and this can lead to a sudden increase in absences and a dip in productivity.
However, it can be hard to identify those who are at risk, as most people with an eating disorder are not visibly underweight. This is because we tend to associate ‘eating disorders’ with anorexia, but there are many other easily-concealed ones, such as bulimia, binge eating and ‘other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED)’.
So, what are the signs and what should employers be doing?
There are a range of symptoms that an employee may be exhibiting which can indicate that they are struggling with an eating disorder:
- Feeling anxiety/stress around food – this can take the form of not wanting to eat with others, obsessively calorie counting/exercising, constantly eating, or avoiding having to see their own image (wanting to have their camera off during meetings).
- Withdrawing from social situations – usually these situations revolve a lot around food and drink, so avoiding them allows a person to have more control over their diet.
- Routine and stability at work – people with eating disorders tend to be perfectionists and may struggle to cope with sudden change as this could not be predicted and planned for.
- Increased absence – those who suffer from any of these disorders are likely to have poorer health as they can have a compromising effect on the immune system.
If a member of staff or a manager begins to notice any of these signs, paired with a change in productivity and engagement, then the best approach would be for the suspected person’s line manager to set up a one-to-one meeting with them.
Ensure that the conversation is centred around their affected performance, and then ask them why this might be. If a manager goes in trying to diagnose someone with an eating disorder, this can either make the person feel like they are being accused of something, or there may be an entirely different reason for their sudden change in behavior. Let them lead the conversation and the issue will organically come to light.
If they do discover that the person is indeed struggling with an eating disorder, be sure to reassure them as an employer that you want to support them, not judge them. The manager can then signpost them to a GP or an external source of support, such as Beat (UK based) or National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA, US based).
Copyright OrgShakers: The global HR consultancy for workplace transformation founded by David Fairhurst in 2020