07/05/2021

I’ve had an eating disorder my entire working life – here’s how you can help

Rachel Egan
Rachel Egan

Senior Marketing Officer at Mind

Eating disorders are often misunderstood, and conversations about them can be filled with misconceptions. In this blog, Rachel Egan, a Senior Marketing Officer for Mind, shares her experiences of working with an eating disorder.

For more information, this guide from ENEI​Eating disorders in the workplace PDF Eating disorders (EDs) are a range of mental health conditions including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorders, and more. This guide is designed to help employers to understand eating disorders, and offers advice on workplace support.Free By: The Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion View resource includes advice for employers to help them support an employee who might be experiencing an eating disorder.

I’ve had an eating disorder my entire working life. Sometimes it goes quiet and I can live my life and eat, exercise and socialise the way I want to; other times it is loud and drowns out everything else around me. But it’s always there.

Between 1.25 million-3.4 million people in the UK have an eating disorder​The essentials series – eating disorders introduction Video This short video from the Be Well Collective's mental health initiative busts some myths about eating disorders, and explains some of the earliest signs, to help you look out for your friends and colleagues.Free By: The Be Well Collective View resource, and most of them are adults. But we don’t talk about them at work. Unlike more common mental health problems, like stress and anxiety, eating disorders still remain firmly in the shadows.

Part of this is due to the misconception that one must be severely underweight to experience an eating disorder, or that they only affect teenage girls. In fact, eating disorders affect people of all ages, genders and body sizes, and are rising rapidly among men, people from racialised backgrounds and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

You cannot tell that somebody has an eating disorder just by looking at them

But how do you spot the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder in the workplace and what you can do to help a colleague who you think may be struggling?

Know the signs:

1. Let go of any misconceptions: First of all, let go of any misconceptions you have about eating disorders. You cannot tell that somebody has an eating disorder just by looking at them as very few people with an eating disorder become underweight. Eating disorders​The essentials series – Hope Virgo on eating disorders Video This video from the Be Well Collective is designed to encourage models and those that work with them to look out for the signs that something may be wrong, particularly in terms of eating disorders and related issues.Free By: The Be Well Collective View resource like bulimia, binge eating disorder and OSFED (Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders) are far more common that anorexia and just as dangerous and distressing.

2. Look out for warning signs: There isn’t a perfect checklist of symptoms for an eating disorder but things to watch out for include: anxiety and distress around food, not wanting to eat in front of others, an obsession with calorie counting or exercise, constant eating or claims of being ‘addicted to food’. You may notice that somebody is highly critical of their body or their eating habits. This could manifest as people not wanting to turn their video cameras on or wearing baggy clothes.

A woman looks at herself in the mirror during a workout.

3. Other psychological signs: An eating disorder doesn’t just affect somebody’s behaviours around food. People with eating disorders are often perfectionists, have high levels of anxiety​Stress and anxiety at work: personal or cultural? PDF This report from Acas looks at the impact of work on anxiety, and can be used to help you identify areas in your own organisation that may be causing more pressure than they should be.Free By: Acas View resource and may struggle to cope with change​Coping with change PDF Change in the workplace is often inevitable, but the impact it can have upon employees will differ. This guide helps managers guide their staff through stressful periods of change.Free By: RBS Group View resource. They like predictability, routine and stability at work.

4. Social withdrawal: As so much of our social lives centre around food and drink, many people with eating disorders may find themselves withdrawing from social events in order to exercise control over their diet.

5. Physical signs: Eating disorders affect every single system in the human body. Digestive issues occur in around 95% of cases with stomach pain and constipation being the most common complaints. In general, people with eating disorders may generally have poorer physical health as their immune system is compromised and may have a higher rate of absence than the average employee.

Diet talk and body-shaming is insidious in workplace culture

How can I help?

If you suspect somebody is struggling​Supporting a member of staff with mental health difficulties Web page It’s likely that we’ll all encounter a colleague or staff member experiencing mental ill-health at some point. This guide has advice for senior school staff on how to recognise if a staff member is struggling and how best to support them.Free By: Mentally Healthy Schools View resource with an eating disorder at your workplace, you may want to quietly and confidentially mention it to their manager or a co-worker they are close to. Remember that your intuition may not necessarily be correct so approach the subject very carefully.

Here are some other ways you can help:

1. Avoid diet talk: Diet talk and body-shaming is insidious in workplace culture. Comments like ‘I’m so bad for eating this cake’ or deprecating comments about your body can be really harmful to somebody with an eating disorder, but they aren’t very good for your own self-esteem either. Avoid them.

2. Don’t comment on what somebody is eating: Eating in front of others provokes a lot of anxiety in many people; both those with and without eating disorders. Comments like ‘is that all you’re eating’, or ‘Wow that’s a big slice of cake’ can make people feel paranoid and ashamed. Don’t comment on food choices – let people get on with it.

 

Colleagues enjoy some snacks together.

3. Be mindful of conversations around exercise: Over-exercise has been a big part of my eating disorder and one of the hardest parts to overcome. Consequently, long conversations about exercise, or how far somebody has run, or how many hours they worked out for can be really triggering for me. Be aware of who you might be speaking to.

4. Make adjustments: People with eating disorders may need time off for treatment or support in the workplace. Ask them what would be helpful. For me, reducing my hours when I had lots of nutritional deficiencies helped me cope with the fatigue I was experiencing and having time off to attend treatment allowed me to start the recovery process.

For me, work has always been a big motivator for staying out of hospital. Although it can be stressful, it helps with providing routine and social contact and keeps me focused on recovery. With the right support, people with eating disorders can thrive in the workplace.

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