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Eating Disorder Awareness Week: How can employers help?

There are around 1.25 million people in the UK with eating disorders, and the isolation of the pandemic has made things significantly harder for many, according to charity Beat Eating Disorders (Beat).

Yet, as is the case with so many disorders or illnesses, eating disorders can be hard to spot. 

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Tom Quinn, Beat director of external affairs, told HR magazine that people with eating disorders often present little difficulty at work.

There are, however, signs that could help employers seeking to support their workforce spot an issue.

He said: “While some physical changes, such as weight gain, loss, or fluctuations, might become noticeable, the first thing that’s likely to change is the person’s behaviour. 

“They might show increasing stress and anxiety, social withdrawal, low self-esteem, mood swings, irritability, or difficulty concentrating.”

Fergus Ross, counselling and psychotherapy practitioner at distance counselling start-up MYNDUP, said that the first step for employers was educating their teams properly.

He told HR magazine: “Personal eating habits are something that many of us don’t like to talk about, so it can be hard to open up to colleagues about disordered eating, or unhealthy relationships with food.”

Creating accessible and anonymous spaces for employees to reach out and share if they are suffering from an eating disorder is vital, he said.

Ross added: “Companies need to ensure they're helping to break down the stigma around discussing food habits, especially with co-workers. This allows for more employees to come forward to HR, with fewer hesitations, and get the help they need.” 

According to Quinn, staff who have an eating disorder may require lengthy treatment or absence to attend appointments.

Employers can help here by adjusting employees’ working arrangements, such as their hours or responsibilities.

“Eating disorders are illnesses, so policies and procedures around staff illness will be relevant, and staff with managerial or supervisory responsibilities will benefit from understanding how best to support someone with an eating disorder."

The loved ones of those suffering can also be under severe strain, and so should be considered as part of any wellbeing plan.

Ross added: “Businesses need to be understanding of [the pressure others are under] and have clear signposting to external charities or sources of help.”

This week marks Eating Disorder Awareness Week (28 February - 4 March).