Currently, some 1.25 million people in the UK are living with an eating disorder. However, since the COVID-19 outbreak, a rise in the number of children and teens developing eating disorders continues to soar with fear for the same amongst adults. This week, during Eating Disorder Awareness Week, we’re talking about how eating disorders at work can affect individuals, but more importantly how workplaces can also support those that are suffering.
What Is an Eating Disorder?
Identified as a serious mental illness involving disordered eating habits, they come in different forms varying from bingeing, purging after eating, excessive exercise, or refusing to eat altogether. An eating disorder isn’t just about food, rather it is about the feelings surrounding food with co-occurring conditions such as anxiety and depression and can sometimes be disguised by other disorders such as substance abuse. Often stigmatised as a cry for attention, eating disorders can arise due to self-esteem isssues and emotional regulation therefore are to be taken seriously and do require professional medical attention.
Why are Eating Disorders Soaring?
Psychiatrists up and down the country have warned of a “tsunami” of eating disorders is on the way; this follows growing numbers of new patients experiencing anorexia and bulimia. In Oxford, at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the number of people experiencing such conditions has risen from 20% to 80%. With this number continuing to rise, the waiting time to be seen for young people has also increased; with waiting time seeing a staggering 128% increase than that of last year. In addition, the lowest percentage of patients receiving treatment has surfaced for the first time in three years. This is largely due to underfunding and reduced capacity due to COVID-19.
Eating disorders tend to arise when an individual feels out of control. There is very little in our control right now and life has been stagnant for some time. With a continuum of lockdowns and absence of ‘normal’ life, this only aggravates the need for control. Isolation during lockdown is a hotspot for eating disorders to thrive as a way of coping. Equally, we’re left unaccountable day to day to our peers, colleagues and families which can be a slippery slope.
Additionally, social isolation has led to an increase in anxiety, depression and alcohol use. There is a very close link between anxiety and eating disorders and for the most part, some may not even be aware they are showing signs of one until it is severe. Individuals who are aware of their suffering have been reluctant to come forward and see their GP as they feel undeserving of medic’s time during a global pandemic. The shame around eating disorders not only exacerbates the individual’s feelings and emotions it causes refusal to seek the help they need.
Eating Disorders at Work
Around 4% of adults experience an eating disorder in their lifetime, however most do not receive the correct treatment that they require. This is largely due to lack of knowledge of the warning signs and recognition from those around them. The chances of recovering from a complex mental health condition such as an eating disorder increases the earlier it is detected, however in some cases, eating disorders can cause serious health consequences.
Common warning signs of eating disorders include the following:
- Weight Loss
- Weight concerns
- Weak Immune System
- Menstrual Issues (women)
- Stomach Issues
- Oral/Dental Issues
- Rituals around eating
- Fear eating in public
- Extreme Exercise
Whilst these warning signs can project externally, with the country continuing to work remotely, the warning signs may not be as visible as usual. Eating disorders at work might not cause any issues and employees may continue with their job as normal. However, if an employee speaks openly with their manager about their disorder and is undergoing treatment, chances are they’ll need time out of work for appointments, so flexibility and reasonably adjustments from an employer are recommended.
Some industries are more prone to exacerbating eating disorders than others. If your industry is within fashion, media or food you might need to consider how the environment might be affecting employees. Whilst they may not cause employees to develop an eating disorder, it may make them more vulnerable. It is imperative for workplaces to promote the importance of healthy eating and eating a balanced diet, even whilst employees are working from home and general wellbeing is important for all employees. Managers are in a position to encourage employees to look after their bodies, mentally and physically and are encouraged to be vigilant of those they know are facing an eating disorder.
Support is broadly encouraged from the employer, both internally or externally from therapy centres or agencies. Open communication internally allows for the employee to seek help that is offered to them. Support from an employer can play a vital role in the recovery of an eating disorder. Individuals who are aware something is wrong but feel undeserving of help shouldn’t go amiss and communication must be maintained. If the individual requires a lengthy absence from work a positive and constructive return interview is advised to pave the way forward for the employee and employer. It can be really difficult for someone to disclose they are facing an eating disorder and in most cases, it isn’t spoken about until physical symptoms are visible; in these instances, the employer is in a strong position to be guided support to the employer.
Workplace Legislation for Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are considered a mental disability. Any disability is a Protected Characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, therefore anyone with this disability is protected against discrimination, harassment or victimisation.
Discrimination in the workplace occurs when an employer fails to offer the correct support for someone with a disability. It also means an employer would be unlawful to ask about a potential employee’s health before employing them. Therefore reasonable adjustments should be made to an employee’s role in order to comply with Duty of Care and accommodate a disability. More information surrounding eating disorders can be found on our app and is available to all our clients.
Everymind is on a mission to be the number one provider for mental health support in the workplace. We offer training to equip your employees with the relevant learnings and key skills to be a source of support to their peers, whilst our app and webinars provide each employee tailored content for personalised assistance. As a partner of Everymind, you will be fully assisted by our dedicated team who aim to remove fragments in mental health systems in the workplace. Not only does this cut time, costs and resources, you will have a happier, healthier workforce. More information can be found here.