“An eating disorder informed workplace would be careful not to comment on people’s bodies, and not to encourage weight loss through competition or diet talk,” says Rebecca Eyre. Eyre is an eating disorder therapist and the CEO of Project HEAL, a non-profit that helps connect under-resourced people to eating disorder treatment at little to no cost.
Research shows that at least 10% of people in the U.S. are affected by eating disorders. However, Eyre shares that this number is likely much higher, potentially closer to the majority of Americans. Work is an unavoidable venue that might be challenging for people with eating disorder histories or who are actively seeking treatment.
Here’s what Project HEAL recommends for creating an eating disorder informed workplace:
1. Recognize that eating disorders can affect anyone, no matter their size, race, gender, or sexual orientation.
While employers may be readily able to identify and offer support to a young white female employee who is visibly underweight, the majority of people with eating disorders do not look like that stereotype,” says Eyre. “It is worth assuming that someone or many someones on your team are fighting a silent battle with food and body on a daily basis.”
Less than 6% of people with eating disorders are underweight, between 25-40% of people with eating disorders are male, transgender individuals are 8x more likely to have an eating disorder, and Black and Latine women are more likely to struggle with certain eating disorders.
2. Don’t hold weight-loss challenges, and refrain from making values-based comments about food or bodies at work. For example, “I feel so fat today,” “I have to be good and have a salad for lunch today,” or “Did you see how poorly that shirt fit them?”
Body image talk, intentional weight loss, and yo-yo dieting are research-backed predictors and exacerbators of eating disorders and negative health outcomes. As such, an eating disorder informed workplace would be careful not to comment on people’s bodies, and not to encourage weight loss through competition or diet talk.
3. Be careful with food-centered staff events.
In addition to avoiding moralizing and diet-centered conversation, buffet-style lines can be overwhelming for those in recovery. Instead, make these parties optional or just avoid having them altogether. People with an eating disorder may be likelier to confide in a colleague, rather than their employer, and may benefit from having a mealtime buddy. “If you know someone specific who has confided in you with their struggle, simply being a friendly face during food-centered work events and lending a non-judgmental ear would be helpful as well.”
“An eating disorder informed workplace would be careful not to comment on people’s bodies, and not to encourage weight loss through competition or diet talk.”
4. Employers, keep eating disorders in mind as you set insurance coverage and plans and be patient with eating disorder recovery.
Even though eating disorders are one of the most fatal mental illnesses, people who don’t fit the outdated mental image of an eating disorder are often overlooked, dismissed as “not serious,” and sometimes even overtly encouraged in their eating disorder by medical providers, employers, and family members alike. Employers have the power to set health insurance coverage and company-wide plans, allowing or not allowing different levels of medical leave, and the obvious ability to hire and fire. Eating disorders also take a long time to heal, so it’s important to have patience and see employees as whole people. For those who have been malnourished for long periods of time, their cognitive functioning may be affected.
5. Understand why eating disorders occur.
Eating disorders are often a form of coping internally with a difficulty out of a person’s control. Eating disorders are not just about food or body image.
“Eating disorders are intimate by nature; they are often deeply rooted in a desire to be accepted and loved by others, and they impact how we feel about ourselves emotionally and physically,” says Eyre. People are less likely to speak with others about how they may feel unloved or judged based on their appearance, but they also may be less likely to discuss potential underlying trauma or emotional distress that often causes eating disorders.
“Body image talk, intentional weight loss, and yo-yo dieting are research-backed predictors and exacerbators of eating disorders and negative health outcomes.”
6. Have resources available.
Many of those struggling with these issues are also unaware that healing is possible and may not ask for help. Project HEAL has compiled a number of support groups and other resources; if employers would like to access them, they can reach out here.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with an eating disorder and you don’t know what to do, find out more about your options at www.theprojecheal.org/apply-for-support. If you’re an employer looking to support your employees through an eating-disorder-informed lens, please reach out to Project HEAL’s team to schedule an eating disorders awareness training for your teams. Please contact Serena Nangia with any questions or inquiries at email@example.com.