The Struggle is Real… in the Workplace: National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is February 27 through March 5, 2023
Julie Foster, LISW-S, RN, MEd
There are many types of eating disorders. The most commonly talked about eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder. National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (NEDAW) is an observance to bring awareness to the seriousness of eating disorders across the United States. It is estimated that over 28 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. (https://www.womenshealth.gov/nedaw).
So, what can employers and leaders do to help?
Fatphobia and body shaming are so woven into our workplaces that often it goes unchecked. In fact, it is a microaggression normalized by “wellness” programs in the workplace that encourage weight and calorie tracking, weight loss incentives, and “Biggest Loser” competitions.
There is “evidence that weight stigma is a bigger risk to people’s health than weight itself and what they eat.” (Harrison, 2021)
Weight-loss challenges can actually be one manifestation of a hostile work environment.
And anyway, dieting does not work! 95% of those who diet may lose weight in the short term, but they gain that weight back and more within 1 to 5 years. (Fildes et al., 2015)
Instead of weight loss competitions, how about implementing “No diet/body talk zones” and including weight discrimination in workplace diversity and inclusion efforts. Workplace leaders can start to change the office culture by modeling zero tolerance for body shaming and also by supporting employees who are actively fighting against diet culture. Leaders can fight weight discrimination by examining their hiring practices and normalize not just Health at Every Size (HAES) but also leaning into the truth that size has no bearing on one’s intelligence or work ethic.
How can you shut down body-shaming? Start with yourself. What kind of things do you say, out loud, at work, about your body and what you are, and are not, eating? Change the narrative and speak up when others are making fatphobic comments. What others are eating or not eating is no one’s business. Commenting on someone’s weight in any fashion is not appropriate any more than commenting on anything else about their body.
You wouldn’t agree with a colleague making racist or homophobic remarks, so the same should be true if employees are body shaming. Here’s how you could respond:
“Why would you think it’s okay to say something fatphobic like that?” Or, “Why do you think it’s okay to discuss ______’s body?”
Another important part of creating a body-size inclusive culture is to conduct a physical audit of your environment. Are there chairs and workstations to accommodate all sizes of bodies? Are your waiting areas or lobbies welcoming to all sizes of bodies? Do your vending machines sell regular and low-calorie drinks for the same price?
Just like “love is love”, “food is food.” Food is neutral, not good or bad. What you eat does not define you as good or bad or qualify as being good or bad. And it’s no one’s business what or how much someone else is eating, so request employees keep their commentary (which is probably related to their own insecurities) to themselves. It is important for leadership to recognize that it is likely that a percentage of their workforce has, or has had, and eating disorder, and comments about food and size can be very triggering for them. What might seem like a neutral comment (“I can’t believe how bad I was! I ate that whole piece of cake!”) reinforces to someone with an eating disorder that food and eating is bad or shameful. Or talking about how you haven’t eaten all day as some badge of honor reinforces to others that they are somehow weak or wrong for eating regularly.
It is also important to remember that an eating disorder is a disability, therefore the Equality Act 2010 applies. Eating disorders are the most lethal of all mental illnesses. Managers and colleagues should be aware that individuals with eating disorders, as with any long-term health condition, may have changes their performance.
Reasonable adjustments for those suffering with an eating sidorder could include: flexibility in allowing time off for appointments, working hours or extended lunch or other breaks, consideration of factors such as a place to eat in private or avoiding lunch meetings or other work events involving eating socially.
Compliment people without bringing their weight or bodies into it. Find ways to bond, connect and have conversations with people in the workplace that do not involve food, bodies, or weight loss.
Encourage movement for fun, for change of scenery, for better productivity. Play music, normalize dance breaks.
Why not create a routine where everyone has the opportunity to get up from their desk at least once every hour and takes a 2 minute walk. But avoid tracking steps or putting a lot of emphasis on competition.
The best way for people to be released from diet culture is to have a community of support. The workplace can become a safe space. If you are concerned an employee may have an eating disorder, there is help at the Lindner Center of Hope 513-536-HOPE.