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Feb 6, 201911:15 PM Live Well, Work Well

with Debra Lafler

Understanding eating disorders at the workplace

(page 2 of 2)

Disordered eating

Disordered eating is more prevalent. People with disordered eating patterns (e.g., restrictive eating, binge-eating, or purging), are doing similar behaviors to those with eating disorders, but their mindset has not become obsessive and compulsive about it. The person feels as if they still have control over the behaviors. They may feel upset about their behaviors, but they don’t feel overtaken by them. 

Although we don’t have statistics on disordered eating (as separate from eating disorders), it is clear that many people struggle with their eating behaviors.

If we include common practices like overeating, mindless eating (eating without paying attention to what we are eating, how we are eating, how much we are eating, or how we are feeling when we are eating), or eating when we are not hungry (i.e., eating when bored or stressed) as forms of disordered eating, then most of the population struggles.

How worksite weight loss programs may contribute to developing eating disorders

With good intent, employers have been trying to help their employees improve their health through weight management efforts. They may offer something like a “Biggest Loser” campaign and make it a contest based on how much weight people can lose. However, these efforts can often backfire.

These efforts are focused on weight, not wellness or self-care, and we are classifying employees as unhealthy or healthy, or bad or good, based on their weight. This can be emotionally damaging.

Judging ourselves on our body compared to any sort of standards can lead to self-worth issues. When we judge ourselves against a physical ideal, we often feel like we are failing. Even if we attain the ideal, the obsession continues out of fear that we will lose it, or fear that we are still not good enough. This is one of the foundations for developing eating disorders.

When we focus on weight, we are focused on the outcome rather than the determinants (what’s causing the weight), including how social systems (like the employer or society) might be contributing to it with our environment and social practices.

How food at work may be challenging for those with disordered eating or eating disorders

Vending machines, candy dishes, and treats at work are especially challenging for those who struggle with disordered eating or eating disorders.

How an employer can help

If you’d like to help your employees with eating disorders and disordered eating, I would also suggest the following:

  • Switch the focus from weight loss to “health at every size” and mindful eating.
  • If you use incentives for wellness, be sure to reward participation rather than weight loss.
  • Minimize candy dishes and treats brought in to the office, if possible.
  • Download and read the NEDA’s “Eating Disorders in the Workplace Toolkit.”
  • Observe National Eating Disorder Awareness Week at your worksite this February.
  • Consider encouraging employees to do a private eating disorder screening.
  • Write an article about eating disorders in your employee newsletter.
  • Put posters up about eating disorders and how to get help on your bulletin boards.
  • Promote your health benefits, and your employee assistance program (EAP).
  • Be sure that eating disorder treatment is a covered benefit in your health plan.

Finally, reassess your vision, mission, and goals for your wellness program. Aim to help your employees with their overall wellness and well-being through holistic worksite wellness programming.

Stay tuned for next month’s blog post! March is National Nutrition Month. I will be writing about more ways that employers can encourage and support healthy eating.

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About This Blog

Debra Lafler is a Madison-based wellness consultant, coach, and speaker with over 20 years of experience in the field. She currently works as the employee wellness and employee assistance program manager for the Wisconsin State Department of Health Services, and as an adjunct instructor for the University of Wisconsin’s Health and Wellness Management program. She also is available privately to hire as a business consultant, personal coach, or motivational speaker. Debra has a doctorate degree in Divinity & Spiritual Studies from Emerson Theological Institute; a master’s degree in Health & Behavior Studies specializing in Health Education from Columbia University; a bachelor’s degree in Communication, with certificates in Wellness and Coaching from The University of Wisconsin—Parkside; and certificates in Worksite Wellness, Holistic Stress Management, Grief Support, and Yoga. She can be reached at debra.lafler@wi.gov or deblafler@gmail.com.

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