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Eating Disorders Awareness Week

Dispel Myths and Misconceptions

The week beginning the 26th February 2018 is when Eating Disorders Awareness Week begins, where organisations will aim to dispel myths and misconceptions around eating disorders. In recent years there has been some focus on eating disorders within the workplace.

Often the mere mention of Eating Disorders can make people feel uncomfortable, but it is largely this unspoken stigma which makes tackling the issue so difficult. Directly considering the facts and treating sufferers with sensitivity – not selectively ignoring the issue – is the only way to offer genuine help.

No “One Remedy Suits All” Scenario

According to BEAT, “Eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder. It’s also common for people to be diagnosed with “other specified feeding or eating disorder” (OSFED). This is not a less serious type of eating disorder – it just means that the person’s eating disorder doesn’t exactly match the list of symptoms a specialist will check to diagnose them with anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder.”

This is a topic that many people go to great lengths to avoid or hide. The difficulty with any eating disorder is that, like other mental illnesses, it usually stems from an individual set of circumstances. Therefore, any kind of treatment for the illness needs to be tailored towards the individual – there is no “one remedy suits all” scenario.

A successful treatment for one person may make the issue worse for another. The threats shouldn’t be underestimated either, to take just one example; anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

It is a known phenomenon that if workers enter a building the same way every day, when the fire alarm sounds, they will try and exit the building the same way, even if there is a fire exit nearer to their working area. The same can be said for dealing with an eating disorder.

Commonly, as with many mental illnesses, the behaviour around eating can become so familiar, sufferers feel comfortable with their actions despite them being negative and causing actual physical harm. It is often easier to sink into a set of responses that you know and are familiar with than to change behaviour to things that require effort and energy to maintain.

Eating disorders have dire effects on a person’s self-esteem, confidence and therefore can impair ability to achieve in the workplace, all the while causing physical effects that will likely be devastating to the sufferer’s well-being.

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A Compassionate, Informed and Confidential Communication Dialogue

It is also hard for people around sufferers to know how to deal with the situation along with when, or whether, any intervention is required, especially when it is clear that harm is occurring. Employers fall into this category and if you have an employee with an eating disorder, you have a duty of care to them, to other staff members and anyone else who can be affected by your employees’ actions.

Their roles and responsibilities may need to be reassessed in order to prevent further stresses in their job role and to ensure that the illness is not affecting the safety of the sufferer or anyone else e.g. driving whilst distracted or operating machinery whilst drowsy – both of which can be symptoms of certain eating disorders.

Employers may be alerted to an employee with an eating disorder by:

  • The employee advising directly;
  • Other workers noticing changes in behaviour such as increased agitation, anxiety or withdrawal;
  • Physical symptoms being noticed by others.

If as an employer you become aware that an employee has a disorder, you need to ensure that their workplace is an environment where they feel safe and give them the opportunity to discuss the issue in confidence.

Once this has been established, research the type of illness that your employee is suffering from and, as with any specialist topic, ensure that you have sufficient information on how to support and deal with the employee and any physical symptoms that may affect their work. It is important to follow the GP’s advice when it comes to time off work or requiring adaptations or reasonable adjustments. You will need to ensure that the usual sickness and absence policies are also followed.

It may also be that one of your employees is involved with a relative or friend with an eating disorder and as such may require flexibility of working for assisting with care, doctor and hospital visits.

The approach taken by the employer should take into account not only the health of the sufferer, but the health and safety of those around them. Ultimately, a compassionate, informed and confidential communication dialogue is essential.

If you are affected by anything in this blog, you can find support from:

Mind – (Mental Health Charity)

BEAT – (UK Eating Disorder Charity)


Victoria Hughes, BSc(Hons.), DipNEBOSH, EnvDipNEBOSH, MCMI, CertIOSH

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