Work & Wellbeing

How should employers tackle eating disorders in the office?

15 min read

17 May 2019

Features Editor, Real Business

Mental health is an issue that’s at the forefront of people’s minds. However, nowhere is it most frequently discussed than it is in the world of work right now. But within this discussion, are we giving eating disorders the time they deserve?

Why are we all discussing mental health in the workplace so frequently? Because we all spent the majority of time at work. So, it’s imperative that employers create a pleasant ecosystem for their employees so that they remain loyal, productive and engaged with making the company profitable.

– But there are some mental health issues that are more closely guarded by individuals at work, one of them is eating disorders. So what can employers do to support their staff members who are struggling in silence?

Work is becoming more social: But this can create more issues

Increasingly, the world of work is becoming a place where employees socialise as well as work towards their pay-checks.

This sea-change in the employee experience begs the question, what can employers do to make employees suffering from eating disorders feel more comfortable when faced with compulsory work meals and parties which involve food and alcohol?

We sit down with Dr Nick Taylor, CEO, and Co-founder of mental health platform, Unmind and Vicki Pope, Senior Client Success Manager, who herself has battled an eating disorder, to find out what employers can do to better manage this most sensitive of workplace situations…

What is your business doing to support mental health initiatives in the workplace?

Unmind’s Dr Nick Taylor is sensitive to mental health issues. Source: businesscloud

Unmind is a workplace mental health platform that provides clinically-backed tools and training to create healthier, happier more human organisations.

In short, we provide a positive, proactive solution that enables employers to improve their mind, assess their own mental wellbeing, or find support in times of need.

Our platform also enables organisations, by aggregating and anonymising their employee mental health data, to create mental health strategies that are most appropriate for their people in a truly data-led way.

The platform offers bite-sized exercises for everyday wellbeing, including personalised assessments and customised programmes to help improve on specific areas such as stress, focus, and sleep.

Further to this, all the content on the platform is produced by expert clinicians, authors, and academics. We’re proud to name John Lewis & Partners, Just Eat, William Hill and among our list of high profile clients.

Do you think that business owners, CEOs and senior staff receive enough training from HR departments about how to support employees with eating disorders?

N: I think there is wide variability in the type and quality of training that business owners, CEOs and senior staff receive.

However generally speaking when training is provided it often focused on stress, anxiety, and depression. Some subjects are less focused on and eating disorders often fall in this camp. The subject of eating disorders is generally not well understood – this should change!

Viki Pope has battled an eating disorder in the past. Source: Unmind

V: At Unmind we are quite literate in the world of mental health, so there is an open and supportive framework in which people who are facing challenges are able to discuss their situation should they feel they want to.

In my previous roles and companies, there was certainly no specific training for supporting people with eating disorders and from my experience and anecdotally this isn’t a commonly talked about the subject – especially in the workplace.

I only have my own lived experiences of having an eating disorder. I think that should I recognise the behaviours in others here at Unmind I would feel positive about reaching out to that person.

Eating disorders are varied and different for each individual and that’s the main thing to remember when you suspect someone could be facing that challenge.

Don’t assume anything, simply reach out and offer your support. This could simply be to offer them an ear but could be with support services and resources.

In a leadership role it could be important to consider that this person could shut down if you are too full on, it is better to let them know that there is a safe space for them to speak out and that you are there to provide support should they need it.

If your company is in the position to provide access to counselling, CBT or similar then it should be something that you let that individual know about.

You should make it clear that them getting help or opening up about their issues will be greeted without judgment and will have no impact on their professional standing. You want to see them thrive.

Mental health issues are vast and complex, but having the right intentions to help counts for a lot

N: Each of us has unique mental health that changes from day to day, week to week and month to month and no two of us have exactly the same mental health.

We are lucky at Unmind to be a mental health company with clinicians in leadership roles. We, therefore, feel empowered to act positively to a wide range of mental health experiences.

However, as a company, we are made up of many different professions so it is just as important for us to train the team to empower them to have conversations about all types of mental health – both the good side and the problem side.

We try hard to create a culture where it is ok to talk about mental health, a number of our leaders have spoken publicly about their own experiences with mental health problems (which is important for normalising the conversation), we also have mental health training sessions, including access to the Unmind platform and practice optional daily wellbeing exercises.

In some businesses, presenteeism culture and long hours can mean that employees eat breakfast and lunch at their desks. Does this facilitate an unhealthy relationship with food in the office?

Is eating your work meals at your desk healthy?

N: Maintaining a healthy balance of time at your desk is obviously beneficial to good mental wellbeing and making time for lunch is clearly preferable. To add to that, generally speaking mindful eating is preferable to mindless eating. All obvious stuff!

However, the key thing in relation to eating disorders is that people experience them in very different ways and therefore there isn’t really a blanket rule that you can apply to this.

There can be some value for some people to have communal eating experiences but for others, it could be overwhelming.

V: Every person with an eating disorder is different. However, a common trait is that eating in public can be extremely challenging.

Eating at your desk can be an easy way to hide what you are eating or to make sure that you isolate yourself from attention around the food – or to not eat at all.

The importance of getting away from your desk is imperative for everyone, so this should be encouraged for all employees – but keep in mind that communal eating might not be great for all!

If you can, it might be useful to offer multiple breakout spaces for people who feel stressed by eating in public to find a quiet space.

Additionally, if you keep encouraging everyone to take a break at lunchtime, then it may help to eventually take away the shame of eating in that group or shared space for that individual.

As I say, everybody’s experience is different, but allowing people to do their thing without drawing attention to it for being different is absolutely key.

Do you think that “free lunch” work perks are a good thing considering people’s differing dietary requirements? Who gets to decide the meal on offer? Does it take away the agency of staff battling eating disorders?

V: A free lunch is never a bad thing! At Unmind we have a range of eating needs and, so when we do organise group eating, all efforts are made to make sure everybody has a choice they can eat.

Remember that the key here is choice without judgment; you may notice that an individual does not partake in group eating scenarios or that they make their own food.

Food for an individual with an eating disorder can sometimes be the centre of their daily routine and a change to this could be very stressful. Don’t draw attention to this in front of a crowd, if you do have concerns then have a private conversation is definitely the way forward.

N: I think a free lunch can be a great thing!

However, in our experience, there is rarely a work perk that appeals to everyone in equal measure and the key thing is to have a varied offering of perks so that everyone feels represented.

There should be no expectation or pressure for people to eat a free lunch. With free lunches, it can be hard to cater to everyone’s preferences but ultimately, in my opinion, it has a net positive impact!

What 3 things would you like to improve on internally where support around employees with eating disorders is concerned?

Take the pressure of obligation off your employees who are battling eating disorders.

V: I am lucky to work in a place where I feel supported in my challenges, however, there are some key actions that I would recommend to any employer:

  •  Team challenges and activities based around food or eating should not be mandatory and no focus should be drawn on those who don’t wish to take part
  • At an individual level, try to avoid commenting on people’s food intake: ‘Wow, that’s a big plate of food’ could be a passing thought for you, but hugely impactful on the receiver

Another part of my experience is an unhealthy obsession or focus on exercise and activity, so when organising these, be mindful of how it is framed.

  • Don’t draw focus on someone you suspect might be facing this particular kind of challenge – people who have an eating disorder do need support and help but making them the centre of attention or feeling closed in can make them clam up.

Instead, choose a suitable time to bring this up with the individual and offer them access to resources.

  • Provide places where people can eat quietly on their own without judgment.

There’s a balance between enabling behaviours and creating a safe and non-stressful space and by providing training, raising awareness and open conversations you’ll be close to getting the right balance.

N: Team challenges and activities based around food, eating and exercise should not be mandatory, and no focus should be drawn on those who don’t wish to take part.

You should also be sensitive about how you discuss the subject of eating disorders. It is important not to draw public attention to someone – if you feel it is appropriate to raise the issue do so in a quiet confidential setting and be ready to signpost to support.

For all mental health concerns, employers must provide training to all employees, raise awareness and encourage open conversations across the business.