How to support an employee with an eating disorder

Having a better understanding of how to support an employee with an eating disorder can help to build trust and ensure your team's wellbeing.

James Rowland

Commercial Director James leads Account Management, Sales and Marketing at Neathouse Partners.

Date

19 February 2024

Updated

12 June 2024
5 min read
featured
How to support an employee with an eating disorder
8:59

Anyone can develop an eating disorder at any time. An eating disorder is a mental health condition in which a person uses food as way of controlling negative feelings. Common eating disorders you may have heard of include anorexia nervosa, binge eating and bulimia nervosa. People who also follow a very restrictive food intake or avoid food can be considered to have an eating disorder.

Typically a person with an eating disorder will try to mask that they have a problem. It can therefore be difficult to identify the signs. While weight loss is a key indication, there are other signs to look out for such as changes in behaviour and mood. If you notice that an employee is having difficulties at work because of an eating disorder, it's important that you understand how the condition affects them and to make reasonable adjustments that can support them. Aside from this, you can offer support by being respectful and avoiding comments on appearance, and preventing situations that may make the person feel uncomfortable (such as work events that involve food).

 

What is an eating disorder?

woman eating lunch at the office

An eating order is a mental health condition in which a person uses food as a coping mechanism to help them deal with difficult situations in life or negative feelings. An eating disorder will typically make a person become fixated on food or their body image – to the point where they may be unable to think of anything else or to enjoy life. Common eating disorders are:

Bulimia nervosa

This type of eating disorder involves a person overeating and then making themselves sick or purging the food from their body by laxatives or overexercising.

Restrictive/avoidant food intake disorder

‍This type of disorder causes a person to worry about their body image and weight excessively, to the point where they avoid food altogether or follow a very restrictive diet. ‍

Anorexia nervosa

This eating disorder is the most dangerous and has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. A person experiencing anorexia has a fear of gaining weight, so may eat very little or not enough, and is likely to over-exercise to prevent themselves from putting weight on.

Binge eating disorder

This condition causes someone to feel compelled to overeat frequently.

Other eating disorders include orthorexia (an obsessive focus on healthy eating), night eating syndrome, and pica (eating non-edible items). It's important to understand that there isn't a sole cause of an eating disorder. They can occur because of a mix of psychological, genetic, cultural and biological factors. 

Eating disorders can be triggered by a stressful life event, anxiety, poor mental health, stress, low self-esteem and so on. An eating disorder can affect a person for years at a time, so as an employer it's important to offer as much support as possible.

 

Eating disorders in the UK: facts and figures

A cafe in an urban area with two baristas

According to private mental health clinic facilities provider The Priory, between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, with 75% being women and 25% men.

Many eating disorders start to develop during teenage years, and are most common between the ages of 16-40, although there have been instances of eating disorders developing in very young children and older adults. 

40% of people with eating disorders have bulimia nervosa, with an average age of 18-19. 10% of people with eating disorders have anorexia nervosa, with an average age of 16-17 years old. 

 

How can an employer support an employee with an eating disorder?

Listen and be empathetic

Two men discussing discrimination at the workplace

If an employee has come forward and said that they have an eating disorder, it's important to acknowledge that this is a brave thing to do. Listen carefully and show empathy to their situation. Ask them what you can do to make them feel more comfortable in doing their job, and ensure you understand how their condition affects their ability to do their role. For instance, they might want more flexibility in their hours, a more private place to spend their lunch hour, or more frequent breaks. 

Don't try and force the employee to share more information than they are comfortable doing. Remind them of supportive organisations they can contact, and any mental health support your own organisation offers, but remember that it isn't your responsibility to force them to get help. 

Create reasonable adjustments

An employer is legally obliged to create reasonable adjustments for anyone with a long-term mental health condition. Reasonable adjustments are changes that you make to an employee's working schedule or environment so that they are not placed at a disadvantage when compared to someone else without their condition. If you can, encourage remote or flexible working, as a person who has an eating disorder might need time off to attend counselling or therapy appointments, or medical appointments. Mental health conditions like anorexia nervosa can also be physically draining for a person to experience, which can impact energy levels.     

Be mindful of language used in their presence

Lead by example and don't talk about diets, trying to lose weight, commenting on what people are eating, or categorising food into 'good', or 'bad' groups. Avoid making negative comments about your own or other people's body image, exercise or gym schedules, as this can be triggering for someone with an eating disorder. Remember that even seemingly harmless observations such as 'you look healthy', or 'you look slim', can trigger feelings for someone with an eating disorder.

Keep work socials as optional events

A person with an eating disorder might not be comfortable with attending a team dinner or work social over food or drinks. Try a different kind of team-building activity instead that doesn't involve eating or drinking. If the employee has a role that involves meetings with clients over lunch, ask them if they are still comfortable with this, if they need support, or if they'd rather stop attending the meetings.  

Think about whether your company culture is healthy

doughnut box at the office

Take some time to reflect on the company's culture. If it's unhealthy and everyone stays to eat lunch at their desks, without getting up to take some time outside or away from the office, consider whether getting out and about is something you can encourage more often, and whether you can also provide other relaxation or recreational facilities such as a break room. This may benefit employees with mental health conditions.

Give them positive feedback on their work

Having an eating disorder can feel lonely and isolating, and it has a great impact on a person's self esteem. Praise the employee with a note to say they've done a great job via email or a group chat, so that they feel part of a team.


What resources for eating disorders can employers refer their employees to?

therapy for eating disorders

By providing employees with access to the following resources, employers can point individuals with eating disorders in the right direction to receive the support they need. It's important to note that it is the employee's decision to follow up on these recommendations, and you should not try to force them to get help.

Beat

Beat is the UK's leading charity for eating disorders. They provide a range of services including helplines, online support groups, information resources and peer support through their website. Employers can direct employees to Beat's helplines or website for support and information.

NHS Eating Disorders Services

The NHS also offers services to people with eating disorders. A GP visit can refer them to NHS eating disorders services for assessment and treatment.

Mind

Mind is a UK-based mental health charity that offers support and advice for individuals experiencing mental health problems, including eating disorders. Employers can direct employees to Mind's website or helpline for advice.

Employee Assistance Programme

If your company offers an assistance programme for employees that provides confidential counselling and referral services, you should raise this with the affected person.

 

We can advise on challenging HR issues

Sarah Simcott Employment Tribunal Services

If an employee has disclosed to you that they have an eating disorder, it's important that you provide help and support. Our team of professionals at Neathouse Partners can advise on how to create reasonable adjustments and exercise your legal duty of care. Our team of HR consultants and employment lawyers can help you navigate difficult conversations to aid the health and wellbeing of your team.

Call 0333 041 1094 today or use our contact form.

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