Believe it or not, we spend one-third of our lives at work. So, it's very likely that women with binge eating disorder, emotional eating and food addiction will take their eating disorder to work with them. Some studies have linked improved mental health and recovery from mental illness through employment. However, if you have an eating disorder, stress and stigma at the workplace may be difficult to avoid and may make your eating disorder symptoms worse.
Your workplace may serve as a bridge or a barrier to recovery from your eating disorder.
Feeling stressed at work can make unwanted eating behaviors such as binging and food obsessions worse. If you have an eating disorder, you may also be experience depression or anxiety or may have untreated trauma - all of which can be triggered or exacerbated by workplace stress. Research has shown that work-related stress can be a cause of relapse. If you tend to also be perfectionistic, which many of my patients with binge eating, food addiction and emotional eating are, this can compound the impact of workplace stress and making unwanted behaviors worsen.
Stigma in the workplace can intensify the effects of stress.
- Sources of stigma at work include weight stigma and stigma related to having any psychological disorder. Individuals with any psychological disorder are often viewed at work as being unpredictable, incompetent, untrustworthy or dangerous. This is even more the case for individuals with eating disorders who are assigned more negative attributes than individuals with severe mental illness. Those living in larger bodies may experience both eating disorder related stigma and weight stigma which is widespread in organizational culture.
Some ways your workplace may be affecting you
Here are some of the workplace situations I've heard about from my patients in The Anchor Program about how they are impacted in the workplace:
- Office furniture not designed with larger bodies in mind
- Frequent work events that focus on food and are a trigger for those with eating disorders to overeat or binge eat
- Comments from co-workers about the latest diet fads and how much weight they are losing / asking you to join them on these diets (implying that you need to lose weight)
- Food left out at work. People randomly bringing in food to share.
- Workplace wellness programs and challenges that focus on weight loss.
What does getting help look like for workplace stress or stigma?
If you have binge eating disorder, food addiction or emotional eating, you may want to think and make a list of all the ways in which your workplace affects your eating disorder. For example:
- What limitations are your experiencing at work? (Ex. work chairs are not a fit for your body size).
- How are these limitations affecting your ability to do your work? (Ex. food being left out all day from a birthday party can trigger your food addiction and distract you from your work)
- What accommodations can you discuss with your HR department that would help reduce the stress you are experiencing and reduce the impact of that on your job performance? (For example: you may request that you be given time off for therapy appointments or request that food be put away after events at work or that you be given a chair that is more comfortable for your body).
- What stresses at your workplace directly affect your eating disorder recovery. (For example: if you are so busy that you never get to take time to eat lunch, this can lead to binging or overeating when you get off work).
The American Disabilities Act protects individuals with all forms of disabilities, including eating disorders. So it is within your right to request reasonable accommodations to help reduce the impact of workplace stress on your eating disorder. It's in the best interest of your workplace to have employees who are able to manage their eating disorder as this will reduce absenteeism, cut down on insurance costs and increase productivity.
The advantage for you to address limitations at work is that you can be more authentic at work when you are standing up for yourself and your needs. You also have to be honest with yourself. If you are not working on solutions for work stressors and limitations, you may be allowing work to be a place you can continue to practice your eating disorder and feel justified in doing so. You may be doing this in other areas of your life. For example, if you're constantly making excuses about how your kids or husband take over time which you say you want to use to cook a healthy meal or go for a walk, then ask yourself why you haven't changed that. If you're ready to get well, it's important to stand up for your recovery in all areas of your life!
As well, internalized weight stigma may be keeping you on the diet treadmill. You may be still buying into thoughts that you should be able to avoid going to the snack room or you should go on the next fad diet or should be able to use your will power to deal with other unwanted behaviors, triggers or responses to stress. I'll be talking more about combatting internalized stigma in an upcoming newsletter.
For now, take a look at your workplace environment and experiences and see if you can identify ways to make modifications that will support your eating disorder recovery and psychological health and well being.
All the best,
PS: if you are planning to speak to your HR department at work and need some information to help educate them, here is a guide.