Creating workplaces that are positive for people with eating disorders

It’s estimated that between 1.24 and 3.8 million people in the UK are experiencing an eating disorder. And many more are impacted, through trying to support someone they care about through these serious mental illnesses.

Eating disorders affect people of all ages, backgrounds, genders and ethnicities, and they are extremely complex. We spoke to two UK eating disorder organisations – Beat and Orri – to find out what, as an employer or a colleague, you can do to support those who are struggling.

Noticing signs

Whatever is happening outside of work will naturally affect us while we’re in work too. So when it comes to eating disorders, what signs might colleagues be aware of? While some physical changes, like weight loss or gain, might be most noticeable, the first thing to think about is behaviour change.

Kerrie, CEO of Orri, a specialised eating disorder clinic, told us: “We find that people often struggle with self-esteem and confidence – people can have really high expectations of themselves, and worry that they’re not good enough, and not doing a good enough job.” As a result, it’s really common for somebody to be highly anxious, stressed, and possibly withdrawn. Eating disorders often thrive in isolation and secrecy. So, as a colleague, you might also notice that person is becoming preoccupied with food and/or exercise, discreet, or defensive.

Establish a supportive culture

We know that managers play a key role in supporting someone’s mental health. Gemma, a Clinical Trainer at Beat and a clinician who’s worked in eating disorder services for the past 16 years, said:

“For me, the three most important behaviours as a manager are empathy, compassion, and consistency. Eating disorders are often an invisible illness. Make sure you are checking in – we all have a collective responsibility to support each other.”

For Kerrie at Orri, “The workplace culture is important – it’s about transparency and openness.” Consider what you have in place to take care, and allow safe spaces and time to communicate with your staff and colleagues. Now that many of us are physically apart from our colleagues, it’s vital to prioritise checking in more than ever.

Education is key

There is plenty of information out there on eating disorders and spotting the signs, so, particularly if you are concerned about someone, do your reading. There’s a really good first-person account, filled with information, here on Mental Health at Work. This will also equip you to have potentially tricky conversations should someone approach you for help. Ensure that, as a manager, you know where you can signpost someone for support. There are some good options below.

In recovery

It’s important to note that most people do make a full recovery, with the right support. But it’s not a linear journey. As a manager, allow your team member to take the time they need for any appointments. And as a colleague, make sure you promote a positive culture, but also consider the language you use, even if it’s well-intentioned. Kerrie points out that “they can become ‘the person with’ and people relate to them in that way. Saying things like ‘you look really well’ or ‘you look so much better’ can be really triggering for someone in recovery.

The safest thing to do, whether you’re a manager, colleague, or friend, is to ask the person what they need. After all, everyone is different; treat the person, not the illness. For Gemma at Beat, it’s something to keep thinking about: “Performance may be different on different days. Think about how, as a team, you can support each other.” And, ultimately, “Just be kind and compassionate.”

Resources in this toolkit:

We talked about the importance of taking a lead from your colleague about what's right for them. Wellness action plans can be a great way to open the conversation about what helps, what doesn't, and what you might notice.

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