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When Work Triggers Eating Disorders


min read


Many people have eating disorders, so it stands to reason that there is probably going to be someone in your workplace who is a sufferer. There are also many things that can trigger eating disorders to develop. Lots of people think that that the main culprits are self-esteem issues due to unrealistic portrayals of body image in the media, or perhaps family and relationship problems that lead sufferers to try to gain a little more control over their lives by controlling their eating behaviors. While those things are major causes of anorexia, binge eating disorder and bulimia, there is another major culprit which is often overlooked – stress.

When people become stressed, they end up acting impulsively since they are unable to transfer that stress into some kind of productive activity. As we all know, work can be one of the most stressful activities there is. Whether you’re under pressure to hit sales targets, be nice to even the most difficult customers or to meet impending deadlines, work is a challenging place to be, so it’s no wonder that a surprising number of people report that stress in the workplace has been a serious contributing factor to their eating disorder.

For anyone with eating disorders, the impulses from social and environmental stressors cause them to either avoid eating food, purging after meals or engaging in binge-eating episodes. Then the feelings of guilt and shame about their body image may then cause them to carry on with the stress cycle if there’s no productive outlet available.

What Is the Link Between Eating Disorders And Stress?

Eating disorders and stress have a strong relationship that results in an ongoing vicious cycle. When someone feels overwhelmed or stressed out, disorder eating behaviors may be triggered. These are used as a form of coping mechanism. Meanwhile, the fears, negative thoughts and compulsive behaviors that are the hallmark of eating disorders will increase levels of stress, only worsening the cycle. Not only that, be eating disorders have a strong link with secrecy and isolation and being over-stressed is also similarly isolating.

Common Workplace Triggers

For someone who is prone to the development of eating disorders, there are many triggers that may be encountered in the workplace. Some of the most common include:

  • A lack of time to take a break or a proper lunch break
  • Workplace canteens that provide specific meals rather than a range of options to pick from
  • The presence of vending machines selling snacks, candy and chocolates that serve to exacerbate the stress/guilt cycle
  • Unhelpful workplace cultures that allow workers to mask their eating disorders – for example working through rather than taking time off for lunch

When these things are added to the stress of trying to meet deadlines and complete work in a potentially difficult and unsupportive environment, it’s easy to see how the workplace could pose a number of threats to those suffering with eating disorders already or those who are likely to develop one.

Working In The Food Industry With Eating Disorders

Unfortunately, many career paths involve working in close proximity to food. From food preparation roles to food service roles, and even roles that involve selling food, it can be very difficult for someone with an eating disorder to spend a significant proportion of their time close to the source of their problem.

The food industry is also an extremely stressful working environment. With precarious contracts, poor wages and long hours, not to mention unreasonable demands and rude customers, it can be an extremely tough job for anyone to endure. When eating disorders are added into the mix, the picture becomes even more complex. For anyone working in any area of the food industry, there will be daily exposure to the thing that is causing so many problems in the first place. Whether you have an existing eating disorder or are in recovery from one, this makes life harder and could also trigger symptoms.

When someone who is prone to eating disorders is surrounded all day by food, disordered behavior patterns can be triggered. However, experts believe that having repeated food exposure with professional guidance can be helpful in treating those with eating disorders to overcome their issues and to control their symptoms more effectively. The key is to have suitable support that eases the sufferer into a setting in which food is a central theme. For anyone who lacks this kind of support, it would be best to avoid the daily challenge of a food industry career.

How Can An Eating Disorder Impact Employees In The Workplace

When an employee has an eating disorder, their psychological and physical health can suffer greatly every time they are in the workplace. This, in turn, can have a negative impact on their ability to work and function normally. In some cases, though, the workplace environment or culture makes it an easier place to hide an eating disorder than the home. Some eating disorders may even be exacerbated by the sufferer’s workplace. For example, some industries are more damaging to this with existing eating disorders or those who are more vulnerable to developing one than others. Industries that involve fashion, the media, food preparation, retail or service, sport, exercise or clothing may all prove to be problematic for those who are suffering from disordered eating patterns. Anyone who works in such areas will probably not develop an eating disorder directly because of the nature of their employment, however it could make them more vulnerable to one.

When people suffer from an eating disorder that remains untreated, the consequences can be life-threatening in the long-term. However, in the short-term, there can be many serious issues that can arise that may come as a surprise to other workers and management teams. Eating disorders can affect workers’ behavior in a social setting and can lead to increasing isolation that only adds to the cycle of stress that is triggering the problem in the first place.

How Can Eating Disorders Be Handled At Work?

Managers and HR professionals in the workplace have a key role to play in helping to support workers with eating disorders as well as their managers and colleagues. This means, though, that they need to understand eating disorders and how they can have an impact on the individual’s life and health as well as their performance in the workplace.

First of all, it’s important for HR professionals and managers to understand that eating disorders are actually mental health conditions with severe emotional and physical consequences.

People who suffer from eating disorders often have a tendency to compare themselves in terms of both their accomplishments and their appearance against extremely unrealistic standards with the results that they usually find that they are lacking. They have huge concerns about others’ opinions of them instead of their own opinions about themselves.

Most importantly, managers and HR teams need to understand that an eating disorder isn’t really about the food itself, but rather feelings and emotions that are being experienced. How the individual interacts with food and behaves around eating is really a strategy for coping that helps them to handle another issue in their lives or to gain more control over themselves.

Triggers like bullying, poor self-esteem, abusive relationships, a lack of control and stress can all trigger eating disorders. If employees are subject to this kind of behavior in the workplace, it’s a key sign that action needs to be taken.

It’s also essential for HR teams and managers to recognize that there is no single image of someone with an eating disorder. While most are female, there is a significant proportion of male sufferers too. While many sufferers are young, there are plenty of older people who struggle with disordered eating patterns in their lives. Therefore, managers need to be open minded when considering which individuals in the workplace may have an eating disorder. Just because somebody doesn’t fit the stereotype of an anorexic or binge eater doesn’t mean that they aren’t suffering since anyone can be vulnerable.

Spotting Eating Disorders In The Workplace

Since eating disorders are hard to spot, especially in the workplace, it’s important for those in management and in human resources to understand what signs and symptoms to look out for in their workforce.

Here are a few of the most common tell-tale signs:

  • Being obsessed by thinness or thin people
  • Constantly making comments about how they are overweight, even if they are slim
  • Having an occupation about dieting, calorie counting and food
  • Avoiding eating with or in front of other people
  • Impaired ability to make decisions
  • Mood swings
  • Excessive exercise
  • Difficulty in concentrating
  • Social withdrawal
  • Increased anxiety and stress
  • Irritability
  • Avoiding any workplace events or social occasions at which food could be present
  • Missed deadlines
  • Evidence of purging such as a smell of vomit

If colleagues suspect a co-worker of having an eating disorder, it’s important to raise the issue either with the individual themselves, or to the management team or HR. The employer can then take action, directing the individual to a doctor or suggesting that they get help for their problem.

There is no single treatment that will be suited to everybody. Some people will respond positively to self-help approaches while others will need to take time away from work to see psychiatric or medical care and treatment.

For someone suffering from an eating disorder, managing eating and weight should take place together with simultaneous psychological help and counselling so that the underlying issues can be addressed at the same time as the issues surrounding food. A doctor can draw up an individual treatment plan for the sufferer based on their own unique needs as well as the kind of eating disorder that they’ve been diagnosed with. They may be offered outpatient treatment on a weekly, two-weekly or monthly basis, and management teams should be accommodating of this requirement, which could go on for several months.

In some cases, sufferers will need to have inpatient treatment. In such cases the treatment could last several weeks, and patients will need to take this amount of time away from work. Employers should, again, be considerate and accommodate this need just as any other employee with a medical condition that required hospital treatment would be accommodated. Once the employee has returned to work, they may still need to attend outpatient and day appointments so there may be an ongoing need for additional time off.

For anyone who is undergoing treatment for eating disorders, having an understanding and supportive employer is extremely valuable. Whenever possible, employers should offer a more flexible approach when it comes to working hours so that the employee suffering with the eating disorder can attend their medical appointments. It may also be helpful to carry out some modifications to the working environment and the individual’s schedule to facilitate their eating disorder recovery. Some of the helpful options would could be useful in promoting recovery include:

  • Offering extra time off to have therapy, to consult with a dietician or to attend medical appointments with the doctor involved in their treatment.
  • Arranging for flexible schedule that will encourage the employee to get all the treatment that they need to get better.
  • Offering a routine work schedule as this helps employees with eating disorders to develop normal eating patterns in respect of regular meal times.
  • Offering fixed shifts for employees who work on differing shift patterns so that they can develop healthier eating patterns and better coping mechanisms.
Food Service | Eating Disorders | Meadowglade

Coping With Eating Disorders At Work

If you have an eating disorder, work can be just another challenge to overcome in your life, especially if you work in an industry that exacerbates the problem. It’s best to raise the issue with your managers so that you can get the support that you need in the workplace to aid your recovery.

On the other hand, if you are in the workplace and suspect a colleague or employee of having an eating disorder, addressing the issue is always wise so that they can seek out professional advice and begin the process of recovery.

 If you or someone you love needs help with an eating disorder gained from or made worse because of work, The Meadowglade is here to help. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you move along on the path to eating disorder recovery!

Fight for yourself, not with yourself.

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