"Visions of World Benefit & Global Responsibility: Perspectives of McGill Students

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Eating Disorders in the Workplace - A Guide for HR Professionals


The HR professional should be aware of eating disorders and should know how to detect and treat them. This brochure, targeted at HR professionals, has as goals:

· To create awareness about eating disorders in the workplace
· To create better detection and treatment for eating disorders in the workplace by educating professionals about common their symptoms and significance.
· To provide tips on the best ways to approach employees who potentially suffer from eating disorders and help them seek treatment
· To encourage visiting NEDA’s website to obtain additional information on eating disorders and treatments available


Contrary to what people might believe, eating disorders have no age or maturity constraints. It is extremely ordinary to hear about adolescents suffering from eating disorders, the most common being anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder (BED). However, it is unusual to hear about these disorders in the workplace, even though they exist and persist in many companies. In fact, approximately 60% of the anorexic population is 20 years or older.
It has been reported that more and more women in their 20s, 30s, 40s and even 50s are seeking treatment for anorexia and bulimia. This fact suggests that many professional women suffer from such diseases, perhaps affecting their work, social abilities and quality of life. Anorexia and bulimia both have appalling features, and people who suffer from these disorders undergo negative psychological, emotional, social, behavioural and especially physical characteristics, which will most likely affect their performance at work.
The problem essentially resides in the fact that there are many professional women with eating disorders, and the companies for which they work do not treat or perhaps even notice them. What these companies may not realize is that eating disorders have monetary, social and health repercussions not only for the victims (including ultimate early death), but also for the employer itself. In numbers, eating disorders cost U.S. businesses $3.8 billion in annual mental and health costs, in addition to $2.5 billion annually in lost productivity, lost work, restricted and bed days. In words, employees lose motivation, skip work frequently and become more antisocial.
Ideally, businesses should care for their employees’ wellness. For this reason, HR departments should be aware of the intensity of eating disorders in the workplace. Information about eating disorders targeted at businesses is scarce. Hence, this brochure is designed to inform HR professionals about the problem and potential solutions.

Common Eating Disorders

The most important thing for the HR professional is to perceive whether one of his or her employees suffers from an eating disorder, which is why this brochure focuses on the symptoms. Viewing the pamphlets prepared by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), available on the website (www.nationaleatingdisorders.org), is strongly recommended.

Anorexia nervosa is “is a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss.” Its four primary symptoms are:
1. Resistance to maintaining body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height
2. Intense fear of weight gain or being “fat” even though underweight.
3. Disturbance in the experience of body weight or shape, undue influence of weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial of the seriousness of low body weight.
4. Loss of menstrual periods in girls and women post-puberty.

Bulimia nervosa is a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by a cycle of bingeing and compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating. Its three primary signs are:
1. Regular intake of large amounts of food accompanied by a sense of loss of control over eating behavior.
2. Regular use of inappropriate compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting, laxative or diuretic abuse, fasting, and/or obsessive or compulsive exercise.
3. Extreme concern with body weight and shape.

Binge Eating Disorder is a type of eating disorder not otherwise specified and is characterized by recurrent binge eating without the regular use of compensatory measures to counter the binge eating. Its four primary characteristics are:
1. Frequent episodes of eating large quantities of food in short periods of time.
2. Feeling out of control over eating behavior.
3. Feeling ashamed or disgusted by the behavior.
4. There are also several behavioral indicators of BED including eating when not hungry and eating in secret.

Treatments Available

As is the case with any other avertable disease, the best cure is to avoid it. For this reason, the company should have a dietician available, or at least cover nutrition in its insurance package. The first step in treating an eating disorder is always diagnosis, which should be done as soon as possible. It is essential that the HR professional encourages, but does not force, a diagnosed anorexic or bulimic employee to seek treatment, and even help them look for an appropriate program.
There are many victims of eating disorders and thus many treatment programs available. The best treatment depends on the victim’s needs, lifestyle and location. However, special eating disorder treatment centers and hospital programs are available in virtually every city. NEDA provides a toll-free referral line, as well as a list of treatment centers and support groups organized by state, which is all listed on its website. Moreover, most hospitals count with a unit specializing in eating disorders treatment, or are at list able to give referrals.
In addition, the HR professional might need to be the link between the employee, the company and the insurance company. Therefore, he or she should be ready and willing to help the employee all the way, be in talks with the legal department to deal with the insurance company, and be able to negotiate terms with the employee’s department. Even though the reader of this brochure probably already knows this, it is essential to mention that companies cannot dismiss employees for mental or physical health issues.

Approaching an Employee

Unless the HR professional holds a personal or intimate relationship with the diagnosed employee, it will be very difficult to approach an employee. How do you tell someone you work with that you think they might be sick? How do encourage someone who does not necessarily trust you to seek help for a problem they do not realize they have? And, even more complicated, how do you suggest that they have an eating disorder, especially when it is perceived to be an issue exclusively for teenagers?
NEDA prepared an excellent pamphlet, available on its website, called The Role of the Educator, in which they explain ten "don'ts" for educators and others concerned about a person with an eating disorder. It is strongly suggested that the HR manager reads and understands this resource.
In addition, it might be extremely intimidating for the diagnosed employee to discuss such personal matters with her co-workers, including HR. For this reason, the HR professional should first consult with her direct supervisor as well as a physician, psychiatrist and/or dietician. Then, make the intervention.

Remember, the earlier the HR professional helps the employee obtain treatment, the better the results will be and the faster she can go back to work as a healthy and productive professional woman.

For more information and resources:

National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA): http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/

National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC): http://www.nedic.ca/

No comments: