Anorexia in the workplace

The death of model Luisel Ramos during Uruguay’s fashion week in August last year was the cause of much frenzied media debate.

Her death led to a ban on size zero girls at the Madrid fashion shows one month later, and raised concerns that the use of super-thin models could increase the incidence of eating disorders such as anorexia.

Personnel Today revealed in our 13 March issue that two-thirds of HR professionals thought that workplace obesity was not discussed enough in their organisation, while figures from eating disorder charity Beating Eating Disorders (Beat) suggest that the drive to be thin could become just as much of a problem.

Managing sufferers

Beat estimates that more than one million people in the UK suffer from some form of eating disorder, so it’s not impossible that at some point managers will have someone on their team with these problems.

A spokeswoman for the charity says: “Although it can be difficult to spot the warning signs, in the majority of cases, unless the employee’s work performance is affected or there is serious detrimental effect on the work of the team, a person’s eating disorder does not need to become ‘workplace property’ of the team.

“It is helpful if you can make this clear to other employees, while also relieving their anxiety about the health and wellbeing of a fellow worker.”

Dr Sabine Donnai, medical director at Nuffield Proactive Health, says that, as with most chronic illnesses, early intervention leads to much better results. That means employers and managers should be aware of any individuals that suffer from fatigue, loss of energy, frustration and mood swings.

She says: “Often employees that develop anorexia are high achievers and will become increasingly frustrated by their tiredness, lack of concentration and subsequent lack of achievement. Most people with an eating obsession do not have insight into their condition and will rationalise their behaviour and physical appearance.”

Offer help

She advises that employers need to alert a sufferer to their problem, then offer both medical and psychological assistance.

“Linking poorer performance to energy loss and tiredness due to a lack of food intake is often the first approach taken,” Donnai says. “Although you need to keep in mind that low self-esteem is often the underlying cause of the eating disorder and you should be aware not to aggravate it further by pointing out poor performance too harshly.”

An open, non-judgemental culture in the organisation will help employees to be open about health issues, not just eating disorders.

Making sure staff know that medical support is available, and promoting a healthy lifestyle through such activities as health fairs, health assessments, and lunchtime talks about nutrition and healthy eating is increasingly important for employees who suffer from being over or underweight.

Providing information about the health risks of being underweight could also help in demonstrating an organisation’s commitment to its employees’ health and wellbeing, concludes Donnai.

Eating disorders: what to watch out for

  • Seriously underweight individuals
  • Employees who suffer from depression and social withdrawal
  • People who are irritable and easily upset
  • People who have difficulty interacting with others
  • Very tired individuals who lack energy and display loss of concentration

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