At MINES & Associates, we’re committed to talking about mental health issues that aren’t ordinarily associated with workplace mental health. This week, we commemorate National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. 

When we think about someone with an eating disorder, we typically imagine a young, underweight woman who lives with anorexia. But there is no one way that eating disorders look – people with eating disorders live in bodies of all different shapes, sizes, races, genders, and more. This means that someone at your workplace could be living with an eating disorder.

So what, exactly, is an eating disorder, and what should you do if you are experiencing this (or suspect someone else is)?

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are health conditions that cause people to have extreme emotions and unhealthy behaviors surrounding food and eating. They’re often thought of as mental health conditions, and they are – but because of the way eating behaviors directly affect physical health, they are taken seriously as medical conditions as well. 

There are many different types of eating disorders. Some of the most common types are:

    • Anorexia nervosa: In which a person limits their food intake

    • Bulimia nervosa: In which a person goes through cycles of binge-eating, and then purging (getting rid of) the extra calories consumed through unhealthy means like self-induced vomiting or taking laxatives

    • Binge-eating disorder: In which a person has periods of eating faster and in a larger quantity than typical

    • ARFID: In which a person refuses to eat certain foods due to an aversion to certain textures, tastes, or smells.

All eating disorders are serious conditions that need to be taken seriously. However, it’s important to note that anorexia nervosa is the most deadly type due to the malnourishment that can occur when someone doesn’t consume enough calories. In fact, anorexia is one of the most fatal mental illnesses (across all types), second only to opioid overdose. Someone dies of an eating disorder every hour.

One thing that most eating disorders have in common is that people who live with them tend to be overly preoccupied with their body shape, size, or appearance. They associate their self-worth with their bodies rather than other traits and qualities. There are some exceptions to this – like ARFID.

Even when they aren’t fatal, eating disorders can have serious consequences to physical and mental health. For example, anorexia nervosa is associated with low blood pressure, muscle weakness, infertility, anxiety, and more.

Eating disorder statistics

Eating disorders are more common than you may think. 9% of the U.S. population – around 30 million people – will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. This means that it’s likely that at least one person at your workplace experiences an eating disorder, even if you don’t know it.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 0.6% of people have anorexia nervosa; 1.2% have a binge-eating disorder; and 0.3% have bulimia nervosa. These numbers may be underreported because of people who are afraid to come over with their symptoms.

Part of what makes eating disorders such complex conditions is the high comorbidity rate they have with other mental illnesses. In other words, eating disorders very frequently appear together with other conditions. For example, over 90% of people with bulimia nervosa also have another mental health condition, like depression or anxiety.

One myth about eating disorders that needs to be dispelled is that every person who has an eating disorder is skinny. Research shows that only around 6% of people who live with an eating disorder are underweight. In fact, many people with eating disorders live in larger bodies. It’s important not to assume that someone does or does not have an eating disorder based on their body size or shape.

What causes eating disorders?

The causes of eating disorders are complex, and can’t be defined as one single thing. It’s never the person’s fault that they have an eating disorder – there are many different factors, both biological and environmental, that combine to cause someone to have an eating disorder.

Some of the most common risk factors for eating disorders include:

    • Genetics

    • Having close family members who have an eating disorder or may have modeled eating disorder behaviors

    • Having a history of dieting

    • Personality traits like perfectionism

    • Being dissatisfied with your body or linking self-worth to body image

    • Having a history of other mental illnesses like anxiety

    • Living in a society where diet culture is prevalent (like the U.S.)

    • Limited social connections

Eating disorders in the workplace

Work is an important part of life, and where we spend a large portion of our time. That means that – just like any other health condition – living with an eating disorder can have a big impact on the workplace.

If you have an eating disorder

If you live with an eating disorder, then you may be worried about how to deal with it at work. Many people with eating disorders feel like they need to hide their symptoms. Living with an eating disorder can also come with consequences – like chronic fatigue – that affect your work performance.

You are not obligated to tell anyone at work (or outside of work) about your eating disorder if they aren’t part of your treatment team. This is private health information, and you are entitled to keep it private if you choose to do so. It’s your choice.

Letting your manager or HR know that you live with an eating disorder may make it easier to get accommodations at your workplace if you ever need them. Depending on the way it affects you, an eating disorder may qualify for accommodations under the American Disabilities Act. For example, you might need some time off to receive treatment. 

The most important thing for you to focus on is healing and recovery. Eating disorders don’t usually go away on their own. You will probably need to receive some type of treatment, whether it’s inpatient or outpatient. 

If someone you work with has an eating disorder

It’s also important to know what to do if you suspect that someone you work with – whether it’s a colleague or an employee – has an eating disorder. 

First off, don’t assume someone has an eating disorder based on their body size or appearance. Remember, there is no one “look” to having an eating disorder. The media portrayal of eating disorders only affecting thin, young, usually white women is harmful and prevents people from getting the treatment they need.

Here are some warning signs of eating disorders to pay attention to:

    • Refusing to eat in front of others

    • Avoiding work events that involve food or eating

    • Frequent trips to the bathroom or sounds or smells of vomit

    • Wearing loose or bulky clothing even when it’s inappropriate for the setting or climate

    • Obsessing over dieting or body image

    • Counting calories

    • Making frequent comments about weight and body shape

    • Being preoccupied with exercise

    • Complaining about physical symptoms like stomach pain, constipation, or fatigue

    • Dramatic weight loss

If you suspect that someone you work with has an eating disorder, you might choose to approach them about your concerns. This depends highly on your relationship with the person. Here are some tips to follow to make sure this conversation goes well.

    • Approach the person directly. Don’t spread rumors or talk to their manager behind their back.

    • Be open-minded about the cause of their symptoms; many other health conditions can cause similar symptoms (such as stomach pain). 

    • Be aware that denial is frequently the first response. Stay open, and don’t take this personally. 

    • Be compassionate and empathetic. Don’t judge the person – having an eating disorder is never their fault.

    • Don’t force them to discuss it. Their symptoms may be related to an eating disorder or another health condition altogether. They are not required to share any of their private health information with you.

    • Encourage them to speak with a professional, even if they don’t want to talk to you.

    • Encourage them to practice self-care even if they don’t want to talk about eating disorders with you. People with eating disorders are often perfectionists, and this may affect their work. Try to model for them that it’s okay to take breaks.

Whether you live with an eating disorder or you suspect a colleague does, it’s helpful to know what resources are available to you. Your MINES & Associates Employee Assistance Program provides 24/7 free and confidential counseling to all employees. Although eating disorders may require further treatment, we can help you get oriented to what your options are and provide a safe space to explore your needs.

We are here for you.

To Your Wellbeing,

The MINES Team