More women in middle age are showing signs of eating disorders, according to research by BEAT, the eating disorders charity. That means someone you work with could be suffering in silence and hiding severe illness. Here’s how to spot the signs – and help
Earlier this year, an article written by Dr. Nadia Micali, a psychiatrist at Maudsley Hospital, made headlines. Dr Micali ‘s research, which appeared in the British Medical Journal, found that eating disorders in middle aged women aged between 40 and 50 were significantly higher than previously thought. 15 percent of the women in the study met the criteria of a lifelong eating disorder but less than 30 per cent of those had sought help for their problem.
These women could be anyone including a colleague or even your boss. A study done by BEAT in 2015, found that 30 per cent of women dealing with an eating disorder at work felt stigmatized due to their illness. The majority of the women in the study felt that their coworkers and peers were uneducated about eating disorders which made them unhelpful in their recovery. Healthista spoke to experts about how to spot the signs.
How to spot someone with an eating disorder at work
1. Drastic changes in mood and behaviour
‘The early signs of an eating disorder will be psychologica’,’ says Rebecca Field, of BEAT. ‘Physical signs of an eating disorder will come much later’. When you are depriving yourself of the necessary nutrients your body needs it will use all of its reserves, working in over time your body becomes exhausted. Starvation affects your mood, concentration, decision-making ability, socially withdrawn and makes you irritable. Someone who was once the life of lunchtime may start focusing heavily on their food, cutting it into small pieces or avoiding lunchtime altogether. Comments about their body, every conversation revolving around food and/or disappearing to the toilet for a period of time after lunch could be signs of an eating disorder states, Amy Wickstead, a psychologist and head of the British Psychological Society’s (BPS) faculty for eating disorders.
2. Physical Changes
You do not have to be underweight to have an eating disorder. ‘It is harder to tell when someone isn’t losing weight but their eating is getting quite chaotic and you are concerned about a bulimia problem’, explains Wickstead. Bloating, cuts that take a long time to heal and complaints of cold fingers and toes could all be indicators that someone has an eating disorder. Weight loss is often accompanied with a myriad of other mental changes that are usually more noticeable and quicker to detect than a physical change, quotes Field. There are people who do not lose much weight but have disordered eating habits that can quickly become dangerous.
3. Wearing really baggy – or really tight – clothes
Along with the behavioural changes that would be geared to hiding an eating disorder at work, there are countless ways that someone could hide their eating disorder. Wearing increasingly baggy clothing or isolating themselves from colleagues and becoming incredibly secretive are a few ways that someone could hide their eating disorder at work, claims Field. Some people may feel larger in baggy clothes they then would begin to wear extremely tight fitting clothing to reassure themselves that they are small and getting smaller, explains Wickstead along with explaining that people usually will look for the stereotypical signs of anorexia when in fact, anorexia is the least common of the types of eating disorder.
Some people may feel larger in baggy clothes they then would begin to wear extremely tight fitting clothing to reassure themselves that they are small
How to help someone with an eating disorder at work
1. If you consider them a friend – be compassionate
Always, always, always be compassionate. ‘Being there for someone is the most important thing. Help them reconnect with the things that they loved before their eating disorder,’ explains Field. Find a way to talk about their eating disorder without making it about the food. Most of the time the eating disorder is not about food but has an underlying issue that usually stems from childhood. Micali found that childhood sexual abuse was typically associated with all binge/purge type disorders and an external point of control was associated with binge-eating disorder.
Micali found that childhood sexual abuse was typically associated with all binge/purge type disorders
Offer to help them talk to someone about their eating disorder. Use caring language and always share your concern for their wellbeing states Wickstead. Language such as, ‘I’ve been noticing weight loss and I am worried about you, are you worried too?’ or ‘Would it help if I could help you talk to someone about this?’ are great ways to start a conversation with someone you are concerned about.
2. If you don’t know them well – tell someone who does
Handle this the same way a friend would. Right now there is an advent around early intervention as the prognosis of recovery is much better, argues Wickstead. If you are concerned about someone but are not close with them, continue as you would in any other context, Wickstead urges. State your concern for them and show that you are coming from a caring place, not from an argumentative place. If you really don’t know someone flag up someone that is close with them and ask if they are finding the same signs. Many times they will be and will be just as concerned as you. Then one, or both of you can talk to that person in a caring and compassionate way.
State your concern for the and show that you are coming from a caring place, not from an argumentative place
3. If you’re their boss – provide structured support
An employer has a responsibility to aid in the recovery with an eating disorder just as much as any other illness, this is true of mental health in general, says Field. There are a lot of ways that an employer could make recovery easier on someone. Providing time off for appointments, allowing a longer lunch time for so that someone with anorexia can eat a full meal and being understanding as to how quickly someone can go back to work.
An employer has a responsibility to aid in the recovery with an eating disorder just as much as any other illness, this is true of mental health in general
In the survey done by Beat, the women indicated that they would have benefitted from having access to a formal or informal mechanism of support at work. Thirty percent of the women in the study claimed that they had little to no support while at work. The number one thing that these women wanted at work was a policy regarding mental health and eating disorders.
Eating Disorders Awareness Week starts on February 27th. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder early treatment is paramount to a full recovery. Go to Beat’s website to learn more.