How to manage someone with an eating disorder

Written by
Carol Stewart

03 Mar 2017

03 Mar 2017 • by Carol Stewart

Eating disorders can be a highly sensitive subject. The person with the disorder may be experiencing a range of emotions including guilt, shame, low self esteem, denial and they may not be open to discussing it.

This week is Eating Disorder Awareness Week (27 February to 5 March), spearheaded by the National Eating Disorders Association, which seeks to shine the spotlight on eating disorders and put lifesaving resources in to the hands of those in need. The theme is ‘It’s Time to Talk About it’, in a bid to get eating disorders taken seriously as a public health concern.

Research commissioned by Beat (Beating Eating Disorders, the UK’s eating disorder charity), revealed that there is an annual cost to the economy in lost income of between £6.8bn and £8bn due to eating disorders.  As a manager of someone with an eating disorder, not only will you be concerned about the cost to the business, you should also be concerned about the welfare of the person concerned.

Adressing an eating disorder

Because this is not an issue that is likely to be presented to you on a frequent basis, you may be uncertain how to manage the situation and how to support a team member who has an eating disorder.  With 2% of the working population having an eating disorder, chances are you may experience a team member who has one.

It is mainly females that are affected, however, it is not exclusive to females.  Studies suggest that up to 25% of those suffering from an eating disorder could be male.

In the workplace, eating disorders tend to be brought to the attention of managers in one of the following 3 ways: 

•    The individual openly informs their manager
•    The signs are obvious
•    Colleagues raise their concerns to the manager

If someone you manage has an eating disorder, or you suspect that they may have one and you are not familiar with eating disorders, gain an understanding of what they are.  Information is available on websites such as Beat, Mind (the mental health organisation) as well as the NHS website (make sure you obtain information from a reliable source). Your occupational health provider or employee assistance provider will also be able to provide you with advice and information.

If your team member hasn’t personally informed you and you suspect that that they may have an eating disorder, or if their colleagues raise their concerns with you, the matter will need to be handled sensitively.

The signs may be obvious to you and their colleagues, but the individual themselves may be in denial.  It is not going to be easy to talk about the condition if they are in denial.  They may be fearful of people finding out and also of the way that others will perceive them. 

Give them support whilst being firm and let them know that you are concerned for them. Keep it about the behaviour, refraining from labelling them or forming any kind of diagnosis yourself. Encourage them to get professional support and provide them with contact details of your employee assistance provider.

Eating disorders are an illness

Eating disorders are an illness. They are a mental illness.  People with eating disorders are likely to go to great lengths to not let the illness affect their work, but if it does, address the situation as per your relevant HR policies.

If they need time off work to attend appointments, be understanding and supportive of them and apply the provisions your organisation allows for health appointments. If they take time off sick, follow your organisation’s attendance policy. During their absence, maintain contact as described by the policy. Arrange occupational health support if applicable.

Returning to work may be a worry for them. They may be anxious about having to answer questions from their colleagues, how people will perceive them, or even have concerns about how they will cope being back at work. Before they return, agree what (if any) information they want to be given to their colleagues that will make it easier for them to settle back in at work.

The return to work meeting you have with them will enable you to discuss their needs, concerns, and any support that is required. Like any team member who has an ongoing illness, continue to be supportive of their wellbeing so that they not only know that there is support available, but that they actually feel supported as well.

Eating disorders are classed as a mental disability, falling within the protection of the Equality Act 2010, under the provisions for disability. Familiarise yourself with the provisions of the Act and any responsibilities you have as a manager and what the organisation has as a whole, seeking advice and guidance where needed.

Impacting performance

If there is an impact to the individual’s performance, this will need to be addressed as per your organisation’s performance policy. When addressing performance, keep it about the performance and behaviour, letting them know how this is not meeting the required standard.

Be supportive and encourage them to open up to you about what is going on, and for them to seek professional support for the illness if they are not already doing so. 

The individual may become a topic for discussion amongst colleagues once they are aware that the person has an eating disorder. If colleagues raise concerns with you, address their concerns whilst maintaining confidentiality. Signpost them to where they can find further information that will help them to understand the condition and how they can best support their colleague.

Always remember that an eating disorder is a mental illness and as a manager, you will need to know how to best manage the situation whilst supporting your team member. Stay within the remit of your role as their manager and don’t cross boundaries by attempting to counsel them about the illness or offer health advice.