It is estimated more than 1.25 million Britons are living with an eating disorder. With the British Nutrition Foundation’s “Healthy Eating Week” taking place this month, now is a good time for employers to be reflecting on how they can better support the health and wellbeing of employees with an eating disorder, including whether their workplace may be exacerbating their condition.
Employee health and wellbeing – supporting employees with eating disorders
With “Healthy Eating Week” taking place this month, it is timely, if worrying, that the eating disorder charity Beat has estimated that there are 1.25 million people living with an eating disorder in the UK, with its helpline reporting a near doubling of calls between 2017-18 and 2018-19.
Just as concerning, recent figures from The Guardian newspaper have suggested there has been a dramatic rise in hospital admissions for eating disorders in the past year, but also (according to a separate report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists) lengthening NHS waits.
What this all has to do with employee health and wellbeing is the fact that, with the notion of a formal lunch “break” in decline in many workplaces – with lunch at your desk becoming ever-more commonplace – employers are potentially on the frontline when it comes to having a role to play in supporting and managing employees with an eating disorder.
Critically, this includes asking whether your organisational environment or culture is inadvertently enabling or masking eating disorders.
And the fact that this month, from 10-14 June, was the British Nutrition Foundation’s (BNF) “Healthy Eating Week” makes it an opportune moment for employers to be reflecting on this and wider conversations around diet and healthy eating.
Healthy eating habits
During the week organisations (including workplaces) will be encouraged to focus on and promote healthy eating and drinking habits, physical activity and to celebrate healthier living.
Key messages will include the value of having a proper breakfast, eating at least five fruit portions a day, keeping hydrated, being active and getting a good night’s sleep.
Healthy eating as a topic, of course, also encompasses conversation around the links between healthy eating and energy levels, productivity and engagement.
It covers the role of healthy eating for shift workers (including what’s on offer in your vending machines) plus how to encourage healthier snacking behaviours during the working day. Alongside this, there is how to encourage and incentivise employees actually to take up healthier options on offer in your canteen or within your vending machines.
These are all important debates to be having. But eating disorders can often go under the health and wellbeing radar, despite the fact that, if an eating disorder goes untreated, it can affect a sufferer physically, psychologically and socially, and can even be life-threatening.
Moreover, within the workplace, occupational health practitioners, HR and line managers can all play an important role in supporting employees who have, or it is suspected may have, an eating disorder.
Mental health support through EAPs
As Dr Lucy Wright, Optima Health Chief Medical Officer, emphasises, one of the first things to recognise is that an eating disorder may superficially be related to food and eating but it is actually about mental health.
“Eating disorders are not actually about food but about feelings – feelings of control or lack of control, of appearance, self-esteem, of shame, of stress and anxiety, of bullying or abusive relationships. The way the person interacts with food is simply often a coping strategy, the way they respond to what is going on in their head,” she says.
“It is all too easy for a workplace culture that encourages at-desk snacking or where people are ‘too busy’ for lunch to enable someone with an eating disorder to mask their condition.
“In terms of what to do, at a practical level, OH technicians are often well placed to include assessing eating and diet with mini medicals and wellbeing assessments. Equally, occupational health and HR can work together to create a culture where people feel they have ‘permission’ to take a proper break at lunch.
“It is also important to look at what foods are available at work, both in the canteen and in vending machines. If you suspect an employee may have an eating disorder, it is vital they get directed to medical help.
“Access to an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) may also be helpful in terms of giving an employee a ‘safe’ space in which to discuss their worries or concerns and for managers to gain valuable best practice advice and guidance.
“Finally, modifications in the work environment and schedule can help, especially in terms of facilitating return to work. These can include offering time off, flexible working or adjusting work duties or responsibilities. However, this must all be done carefully and sympathetically so as to ensure the employee does not feel they are somehow being ‘punished’ for their condition,” Lucy adds.