Eating disorders and discrimination at work

Each year millions of people are clinically diagnosed with eating disorders. Eating disorders are the result of development of an extreme attitude associated with overwhelming emotions which lead to compulsive behavior. These disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and other not specified eating disorders (EDNOS).  Basically there is an overconsumption of food (binge eating) or a severely reduced consumption of food (anorexia and bulimia). The two main triggers of eating disorders include dieting and the resulting hunger. These are in turn triggered by the unrealistic expectations of physical appearance and beauty that are upheld by the society and the media in large.

Though eating disorders could be potentially fatal, with some affected individuals possibly starving themselves through malnutrition and eventually to death, the reporting rates are dismally low. This mostly stems from the misunderstanding, stigma, poor acceptance and fear of retribution associated with these disorders. This discrimination is especially evident in the workplace setting as shown by a survey undertaken by BEAT, a charity for eating disorders. The results showed that one in three people with eating disorders face discrimination at work. These individuals stated that they felt like their employers did not express understanding about their condition, either trivializing the condition or condemning the condition. They also felt like there was a lack of support system to help deal with their disorders. This consequently had an obvious negative impact on their ability to perform at the workplace.

There are two main aspects to the problem here. The first is that on average an individual spends more than half their time awake at the workplace and therefore discrimination in this setting has severe consequences on their overall health. Secondly, eating disorders represent a cost of billions of dollars worth of lost income to the economy. Considering the duality of this problem, management of the eating disorder will help achieve two goals: improving the lives of those individuals afflicted with the disorder and improving the overall economy. Therefore it is crucial that employers do not dismiss the problem and prioritize its management.

Treatment and subsequent recovery may not be sufficient to prevent remission. Employers are an important part of the recovery process in helping eliminate misunderstanding, stigma and discrimination in the workplace and exhibiting compassion and support. In addition coworkers tend to be in a better position to realize a fellow colleague is suffering from a disorder as compared to a higher official. In this case it is essential that they extend support, be willing to listen without judgment and encourage the individual to seek help. This may be by way of reporting to the human resources department or by way of seeking direct medical help.

There shouldn’t be a dilemma in choosing between food and living, for there can be no life without food, and no living without life.


Meghna Nambakkam

Fourth Year Medical Student, SRMMCHRC

Bridging Passion and Compassion.