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Supporting Employees with Eating Disorders

An eating disorder is a condition that affects the way people eat or perceive food. Eating Disorders can be complex and can affect people in different ways. An eating disorder is a serious mental illness which can affect people psychological, socially and physically.

There are various types of eating disorders which include anorexia, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder.

Anorexia – People suffering from anorexia eat as little as possible which can lead them to have low body weight. They have a fear of weight gain and think that they look fat, due to having a distorted body image, seeing themselves as fat even when they can be unhealthily thin.

Bulimia nervosa – People with bulimia nervosa overeat which can be classed as binge eating. Once they have overeaten they then force themselves to be sick.

Binge-eating disorder – People suffering from binge eating overeat, they will eat a large amount of food even when they do not feel hungry, this can lead to dramatic weight gain becoming overweight.

It is estimated that in the UK 1.25 million have an eating disorder. There is no single cause for an eating disorder, however stress, mental health issues, genes, low self-esteem and body image, can all increase the chances of someone developing an eating disorder.

Anyone can suffer from an eating disorder, regardless of their sex, age or ethnicity, research shows that more adults have eating disorders than younger people.

Are Eating Disorders classed as a disability?

Under the Equality Act 2010, eating disorders will most likely constitute a disability. This means that employers must ensure that they make reasonable adjustments for any employees who have informed them that they are suffering from an eating disorder.

Reasonable adjustments can include allowing time off for appointments or counselling, adjusting working hours or allowing them access to a separate eating area.

Supporting employees in the workplace

It is important that employers create a supportive workplace environment for employees, so that employees feel they can discuss any issues with someone with confidence.

Employers can do this by focusing on employee wellbeing and ensuring frequent communications to the workforce, advising that there are options for them to talk and seek support.

Support for employees suffering from an eating disorder

If an employee is suffering from an eating disorder, they may well go out of their way to hide their illness. There are certain signs that employers can look out for which include:

  • Changes in behaviour and mood
  • Distorted beliefs regarding their body size and shape
  • Increased absence levels due to low immune system
  • Tiredness, dizziness and/or difficulty concentrating
  • Going to the toilet a lot after they have eaten
  • Mood swings
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Lack of energy or enthusiasm
  • Being withdrawn or isolated
  • Obsessive behaviour regarding food
  • Rapid weight loss or weight gain

Employers can help employees with their eating disorders via offering support through:

  • Occupational Health
  • Employee Assist programmes

It is important that if an employee informs their employer they are suffering from an eating disorder, the employer is supportive. Any conversation that takes place must be confidential and help offered to the employee, this can be arranging an appointment with occupational health or allowing the employees time off from work to attend a GP or counselling appointment.

Approaching the subject with an employee

If an employer has concerns about an employee, it is important they are sensitive when confronting the employee. A conversation should take place between the employee and his/her manager, discussing the managers concerns with their work performance and asking is there is any support the employee needs, or if anything is going on that could be affecting their performance. Employees need to feel they can talk in confidence and that support is available to them if needed. Employees are more likely to talk open and honestly if they feel they will not be judged.

Training for managers

It is important that managers of people, are trained in how to manage employees who may be suffering from any mental health issue, including eating disorders.

Managers are the ones who know their employees best, and therefore they are often the first to recognise areas of concern and be the first point of call to assist in early intervention. It is vital managers are given the correct training in how to deal with employees suffering from issues and how to handle difficult conversations that may arise from this. Managers must ensure that they have the skills to be sympathetic, confidential, approachable and tactful.


If you would like further guidance on employee well-being or any other HR topic, please contact Clover HR on 0121 516 0299 or email us at info@cloverhr.co.uk

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