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How to support employees with eating disorders

RedArc, the nurse-led wellbeing service, is warning employers to be aware of a potential rise in the number of employees with new or recurring eating disorders, as staff return to the workplace.

Employers need to be aware of a potential rise in the number of employees with new or recurring eating disorders, as staff return to the workplace.

RedArc explains that eating disorders are complex and disabling mental health conditions that affect all ages, genders and backgrounds, and include bulimia, binge eating disorder, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED) and anorexia. The latter has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, but all eating disorders can severely affect the quality of life for sufferers and their families, impairing physical health and disrupting psychosocial functioning.

Christine Husbands, managing director, RedArc Nurses explains why the return to work may be a trigger for some employees: “People with eating disorders often use disordered eating behaviour as a way to cope with difficult situations or feelings, not necessarily related to the food itself, or a desire for a particular body image.

“Some people may have used food as a way to feel in control during the various constraints of the past 24 months. With lockdowns and minimal interaction with others, people may have been able to hide or disguise eating habits but as society opens up again, their eating disorder could potentially be more apparent and cause additional stress and symptoms. This is especially the case as staff to return to workplaces where eating at a desk, or popping out to get lunch with colleagues, is part of the everyday routine.”

Employee support
There is no single cause of eating disorders, though they are thought to be caused by a combination of biological, psychological and sociocultural factors. RedArc advises that employers can provide a supportive workplace environment where employees feel comfortable in raising issues they are facing, rather than letting them gradually build up until their health is significantly affected.

Christine Husbands continued: “It often takes a long time for people with eating disorders to seek out help and engage in it. The recovery process can be very long, often complicated, and with setbacks.

“Employers should ensure their support goes way beyond noticing the signs and signposting to help. Eating disorders are illnesses and all the policies and procedures relating to employee illness apply.

“The earlier someone can access treatment, the better. However, an employee suspected of having an eating disorder needs to be approached with considerable tact and sensitivity, in a confidential environment.”

With permission, the employer or trusted individual within the organisation can play an important role in supporting the employee.

This may include:

  • Flexibility and time off to attend appointments
  • Practical workplace adjustments such as seating location
  • Change of duties to avoid client social events or other difficult situations
  • Regular 1-2-1s to talk about how the company can support them
  • Ensure those with supervisory responsibilities understand how to support the individual

Long-term support
Employees should always be encouraged to engage with their GP even though waiting lists for interventions can be very long in all but the most urgent/severe cases. Other mental health services catering for eating disorders may be available via Employee Assistance Programmes, Private Medical Insurance and access to Mental Health Nurse services. Smaller organisations may also be able to access similar support via the Federation of Small Businesses.

Christine Husbands concluded: “Mental Health is high on the agenda for businesses, but this is an area of mental illness that is rarely talked about.

“Eating disorders are not something that employers can fix but they can provide access to clinical experts and a supportive workplace environment to ensure that employees with eating disorders are given the best possible chance of dealing with their illness.

“As we return to our communal places of work, and with Eating Disorders Week from 28 February, employers may like to take the opportunity to prepare.”

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