Eating Disorders at work: What you can do

Gabriella and I wanted to take the time to explore eating disorders as part of this theme to support managers in the workplace.

Body Image

In essence, body image is a way to describe how we think and feel about and in our bodies. The thoughts and feelings that we have about our bodies shape us throughout our lives. Experiencing body image concerns is common and in itself is not a mental illness. The Mental Health Foundation’s research has found that higher body dissatisfaction is associated with a poorer quality of life, psychological distress, risk of unhealthy eating behaviours and developing eating disorders. It’s also important to note feeling unsatisfied with our bodies and appearance is linked to young women. However, body image concerns apply from childhood through to later life, affecting all genders; women, men and non-binary.

On the other hand, body positivity is linked to better overall wellbeing with a reduction in unhealthy dieting behaviours. Channel 4’s programme Naked Beach was testament to this and enabled participants to not only feel happier in their own skins, but achieve their life goals and ambitions.

Eating Disorders

While body image and eating disorders are distinct, a negative body image alongside a feeling of a lack of control could result in someone developing disordered eating and/or an eating disorder. When we think about eating disorders our biases can come into play. It is easy to jump to conclusions and think about the young teenage girls developing anorexia to adhere to a media stereotypes. Or the misconception that young women are forcibly vomiting “simply to keep up with the latest social media trend”. While social media may play a part, it’s key to remember that it all comes down to control. Food is a way and means of exercising control when someone feels they don’t have any.  It is all routed in feelings, so the way in which the someone interacts (or doesn’t) with food may make them feel more able to cope with day-to-day life.

Overview of eating disorders

  • Anorexia –  maintaining a very low weight due to limiting their calorific intake. It can affect anyone of any age, gender, or background. As well as restricting the amount of food eaten, they may do lots of exercising to burn off any of the calories they might have consumed.  Weight loss can often be rapid and easily noticeable.
  • Bigorexia/Muscular Dysmorphia – being preoccupied with muscle development may involve a disturbance in body image similar to anorexia. The main characteristic is that no matter how hard you train your body is never muscular enough. The condition is recognized as more common in men although some women bodybuilders have also been reported with similar symptoms.
  • Binge Eating – an eating disorder characterized by frequent and recurrent binge eating episodes with associated negative psychological and social problems, but without subsequent purging episodes (e.g. vomiting or use of laxatives). Weight gain is often rapid and easily noticed.
  • Bulimia – a cycle of eating large quantities of food (bingeing), and then trying to compensate for that overeating by vomiting, taking laxatives or diuretics, fasting, or exercising excessively (purging). Weight may remain stable.
  • Nutrichondria/ avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) – a pre-occupation with details of your diet and a propensity to self-diagnose food intolerances or allergies based on supposition or flawed evidence. Cutting out key food groups, which effectively limits food intake.
  • Orthorexia – A person with orthorexia will be obsessed with defining and maintaining the perfect diet, rather than an ideal weight. They will fixate on eating foods that give them a feeling of being pure and healthy. “Clean” eating in the extreme and raw food diets so their nutritional intake can suffer and result in nutrient deficiency.
  • OSFED (other specified feeding or eating disorder) –  eating disorder presenting themselves  in a different way or a mixture of eating disorders.  OSFED accounts for a large percentage of eating disorders.

Spotting the signs

  • Approximately 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder (Beat)
  • 1 in 5 females aged 16–24 has an eating disorder
  • Around 25% of those affected by an eating disorder are male
  • Research has found that 20% of people living with anorexia will die prematurely from their condition

Eating disorders are present in the workplace. We may just not know how to spot them, as they may seem easy to hide. However the symptoms could be there. So, how can you spot the signs of an eating disorder in the workplace? Surely it’s not that easy and is it my place as a colleague or manager to diagnose?

It may not be easy, but there might be signs there. Most of us aren’t medical or therapeutic professionals, but we will notice a change in behaviour or not seeming like themselves. It could be a colleague on a constant never-ending diet, someone going to the bathroom directly after eating, a team member always ready with an excuse not to join in the team lunch. We could also see:

  • Hiding in loose fitting clothes or alternatively, showcasing weight loss by wearing fitted clothing
  • Complaints about being cold all the time
  • Exhaustion
  • Absence from work
  • Drop in productivity
  • Poor physical health
  • Rapid weight loss or gain
  • Mood swings
  • Isolating themselves (like the lonely stark desk in the photo above)

How to have the conversation about an eating disorder

Here are some top tips if you spot the signs and want to encourage someone to get support:

  • Try to pick a time and place to have the conversation but not during mealtimes.
  • It may seem scary, but discuss your concerns with them in an open and honest way. You can do this by reflecting back changes in their behaviour. Don’t focus on their body, how they look, weight loss or gain.
  • Starting a conversation like ” I am worried about you/ that you haven’t seemed yourself” or “I have noticed you haven’t been yourself lately and joining in with x. ” I’d like to like to know how you have been feeling lately.”
  • Be prepared that the person may not want to speak to you, they may shut the conversation down or become defensive. You can reiterate to them whenever they do want to talk you will be here to listen. Be prepared to have the conversation a few times and reassure them you want to help and not remove their choices or tell them what to do.
  • Signpost to specific mental health charities and eating disorder charities e.g. BEAT , Anorexia and Bulimia Care, Overeaters Anonymous , Mind and your Employee Assistance Programme if you have one.
  • Avoid group conversations about body images, food and comparisons and pressuring someone into eating.
  • Encourage them to seek professional medical help, talk to friends and family to get the support they may need.
  • Learn more for yourself, I like this piece on Psychologies Today about binge eating.

Looking to the future

I was once part of workplace where there were office weigh-ins and obsessing about who has lost the most weight by avoiding cakes. Chatter about who has overindulged but never gains a pound. We need to facilitate conversations and be mindful of our language around the positives and negatives of how people may feel about their bodies and body image. It’s down to us to build each other up as a start and be aware how mental health affects our behaviour. To do this we need empathy, an open mind and be willing to have those conversations. It’s time to #BeBodyKind.

Find out more about how to be a Mentally Healthy Leading Manager here. You can find out more about Diverse Minds workplace training here.

This blog was co-authored by Gabriella Kerr-Gordon who is a Mental Health First Aider and works as an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion specialist. She has a passion for Project Management, Race Equality and Mental Health. Gabriella has proven commitment to improving and providing optimum service delivery in both customer care and professional support. She is the lead facilitator of the IMPACT leadership and management programme for BAME staff at Imperial College London.

Photo of Gabriella Kerr-Gordon co-author of this blog.
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