National eating disorder charity asks employers for support and understanding on World Mental Health Day

Posted 10/10/2017

The 10 October is World Mental Health Day, an international event that aims to encourage discussion about mental health issues. This year, the focus is mental health in the workplace. 

To mark the occasion, Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, is calling on workplaces to be responsible and replace any stigma and misunderstanding with support and understanding for eating disorder sufferers.  

Mental health problems are all too common in the workplace and are the leading cause of sickness absence. In 2016, research from Beat found that one in three eating disorder sufferers experience stigma or discrimination at work. 

The charity surveyed more than 650 people and found other failings by employers: 

  • 40% said their employers’ impact on their recovery was ‘unhelpful’ 
  • Two thirds of people were unable to access support for their eating disorder at work 
  • More than four out of five said they didn’t think or didn’t know whether their employers and colleagues were ‘informed’ about eating disorders. 

Tom Quinn, Director of External Affairs at Beat said: “On this day it is crucial to highlight eating disorders and their implications for somebody who works or studies at university; we are often contacted by people worried about their colleagues and employees on our helpline.  

“Often, employees with eating disorders present little difficulty at work and excel at their job. Whatever difficulties they have, they are likely to make strenuous efforts to keep their illness to themselves to avoid their disorder being noticed. 

“Workplaces can play an active role in tackling stigma and supporting a person’s recovery by making reasonable adjustments.  

“For this reason, the stigma and misunderstanding experienced by so many in the workplace must be replaced with support and understanding led by a formal mechanism of support.” 

An eating disorder is a disability and therefore employees have the same rights as someone with a physical disability, under the Equality Act 2010.   

This includes reasonable adjustments such as absence to attend appointments or lengthy treatments.  

How workplaces can help: 

  • Allowing for longer at lunch time 
  • Finding a space the person can eat in private or discreetly 
  • Adjustments when eating away from the normal place of work (e.g. room service in a hotel) 
  • Time allowed for hospital appointments 
  • Flexible working/working from home if being in the office on days when they have treatment   
  • Thinking through how feedback is communicated (e.g. something that is completely nonthreatening or concerning could appear the opposite to the individual) 
  • Avoid booking meetings over lunch / factor in that timings can be part of a meal plan 

It’s important to note that these are just suggestions and whilst could be reasonable in one place might not be practical in another place of work.  

Other, less obvious, things to be aware of are: 

  • Performance may be less productive on some days due to stress  
  • People in recovery from eating disorders may still have low immune systems (even if in recovery) and so be more susceptible to illness 
  • When recovering from eating disorders, fatigue and concentration are common problems so they might need longer to complete a task 
  • Educate the workplace 
  • Consider having Mental Health First Aiders as part of your First Aid policy. Beat also provides training to increase understanding of eating disorders
  • If you are aware a colleague is affected by an eating disorder, avoiding conversations about weight and diets is important, particularly after Christmas and Easter. Talking about food after lunch can also be particularly unhelpful.
  • Educate to highlight that eating disorders are a complex mental health condition. They are not about starving yourself and cannot be ‘seen’: you don’t have to look thin to have an eating disorder. 
  • Someone with an eating disorder is perfectly capable of holding down a full-time job. 

Beat estimates 1.25 million people of all ages and backgrounds, are affected by an eating disorder in the UK. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness but recovery is possible.  

Finding treatment quickly is crucial in saving lives and Beat can provide the first contact to guide and support people in accessing the treatment they need.  

Eating disorders are serious, complex mental illnesses and early intervention is key to recovery. All evidence tells us the sooner someone with an eating disorder gets the treatment they need, the more likely they are to make a full and sustained recovery. 

Beat supports thousands of people every year through its helplines, message board and online services, which are funded by supporters.