Reecord numbers of people are now suffering with eating disorders -and for many it can make going to work incredibly difficult.

Offices and workplaces can be triggering environments – often making it harder for co-workers who might be worried about saying or doing the wrong thing.

Counsellor and author Lynn Crilly, who specialises in helping treat people suffering eating disorders, always encourages her patients to try and return to work when they are well enough.

But she says more education and awareness is needed across many workplaces about how to best support those suffering conditions including bulimia and anorexia.

Lynn, the author of Hope With Eating Disorders,2nd Edition, said: “It is one thing being concerned about someone at work, but quite another knowing what to do about it. Remember that anyone at work has the right to privacy and, regardless of your relationship with them, sharing your concerns with others may breach this confidentiality. If your company has a human resources department, this may well be the best place to take your concerns.

“Whether or not someone in their team shows any signs of an eating disorder, or indeed any other mental illness, employers should feel a responsibility to make their workplace as open and supportive as possible – and that means doing the right thing as well as saying the right thing. Employers, line managers and human resources teams should, if possible, send out a strong signal that their staff’s mental health is valued, and that people can feel confident that raising issues about an eating disorder will be supported in a non-judgemental way and not discriminated against.”

Lynn also believes the rise in the number of people working from home is potentially exacerbating the issue

She explained: “Many might now be suffering in silence, working remotely and away from colleagues who would otherwise be there to provide care and support.

“Although being in a work environment can be a challenge for anyone suffering an eating disorder it is also an opportunity to make that first step towards recovery.

“Working from home can allow a sufferer to hide away and not get the help they need.

And it is harder from a caring and responsible employer to see the signs – and step in.”


BREAKOUT How employers can better support staff living with an eating disorder:

Lynn says:

Allowing employees to speak up, to voice ideas, to play a part in the direction of the company will reassure them that what they say matters. If and when in future they need the support of their employer, they will feel more confident that they are likely to get it.

Being a considerate employer, creating opportunities for creating and learning, and encouraging regular one-to-one meetings and mentoring will also help build trust and give employees somewhere to turn and raise concerns if they need to.

If an employer or manager finds out or suspects that an employee has an eating disorder, the crucial first step is to give them the chance to talk honestly and openly in a safe space, and this should continue if they take time off sick. They should ask what their employee needs, such as an extra break or time off for counselling or medical appointments, and make reasonable adjustments to help. It is also important to remember that everyone’s experience of mental health issues is different, and the support provided to employees should – as much as possible – be tailored to that individual’s needs.

It is not an employer’s job to be a therapist to someone in their team. Instead they should provide the individual concerned with access to information which they can use to get the support they need. This may include details of a confidential telephone service or details of one-to-one counselling sessions with a qualified therapist.

Promoting well-being at work:

In addition to providing an open and supportive environment at work, employees – and businesses themselves – will also reap the rewards of a workplace that actively promotes and encourages well-being. From providing strong managerial support to introducing well-being activities such as yoga or meditation, a responsible and caring employee can have a truly positive impact on its team’s mental health and happiness.

As well as looking at the messages that their attitude gives out, employers should also consider how the physical environment of the office may have an impact on those struggling with disordered eating. Are there suggestions or posters that put an undue focus on weight or body image, for example? It is also helpful to think of the culture around eating and lunchtimes. Are colleagues encouraged to eat together or is there an unspoken expectation of eating at desks or not taking a break at all?

And finally creating a working environment that promotes a good work/life balance is absolutely vital for good mental health. Recognising when someone feels overworked, under-valued, lonely or disrespected reflects an employer who cares about their workforce. Promoting discussions about wellbeing and mental health is also important. It shows that these are not taboo subjects and means employees will feel more able to raise their own issues or concerns more quickly.