Eating Disorders Belong in Your Workplace Behavioral Health Strategy

Working Well, Workforce blogger Andie BurjekA while back a source mentioned to me that many people have a limited view on mental illness. It’s depression; it’s anxiety; or maybe it’s PTSD. But there are many more mental illness conditions to address. Like eating disorders.

Eating disorders account for the highest mortality rates of all mental illnesses, with someone dying every 62 minutes as a direct result of an eating disorder. The National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions hosted a webinar a few weeks ago on the topic — perfect timing to educate employers for Eating Disorders Awareness Month in February.

The alliance referred to eating disorders as a “hidden health crisis” in email communications about the webinar and, I have to say, to me this sounds like an accurate way to describe it. I had no idea that they accounted for so many deaths! I also fell victim to the stereotype that the demographic most likely to develop an eating disorder are young, white, rich girls. Really, it cuts across gender, ethnicity and socioeconomics at pretty much the same rates.

Also, as someone whose been writing about benefits, wellness and health for 2 ½ years, this may have been the first time I’ve seen a pitch or an event about eating disorders. Panelist Craig Kramer, global mental health ambassador at Johnson & Johnson, cited some basic numbers on eating disorders:

  • 30 million Americans suffer from eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. There are other problems that are still in the process of being officially defined as a disorder. To be clear: An eating disorder is different from dieting or occasionally consuming too much. It’s a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder.
  • Eating disorders are “the only chronic condition of the young,” with half of sufferers experiencing them by age 14 and 75 percent by age 24. Most people don’t receive treatment, for reasons like stigma and lack of access, and the longer they wait to treat it, the worse it gets. Although people often develop this at a young age, it’s possible for people to still have an eating disorder into old age.
  • The eating disorder community is underfunded, raising about $10 million per year. Kramer pointed out that an organization dedicated to autism, Autism Speaks, raises $50 million a year.
eating disorders
The National Eating Disorders Association has a toolkit for employers, sharing some warning signs that someone may be suffering and explaining exactly how eating disorders impact the workplace.

There are several reasons why this applies to the employer population. One, this is a major mental health consideration, and many employers are saying they want to address mental health issues. Two, employers are developing an affinity for employee health and wellness programs. As they focus on areas like exercise, diet, weight loss, healthy eating initiatives and body mass index, they should also acknowledge that eating disorders are a big deal. Three, people have eating disorders in the workforce but have never received treatment for it.

One of the interesting ideas that came from this webinar was the causation of eating disorders. Alliance President and CEO Mike Thompson brought up an organization that deals with childhood obesity. Through this organization, Thompson learned how sensitive one must be when they talk about weight with children. It’s possible to push a child in the direction of developing an eating disorder if you don’t communicate with them the right way.

This reminded me a Corporate Wellness magazine article about the impact of wellness programs with people suffering from eating disorders. This messaging could be sensitive to other people, not just developing children.

The National Eating Disorders Association was one of the organizations that, three years ago, opposed the EEOC’s “voluntary wellness rules” that allowed for incentives up to 30 percent. According to the association:

“There’s an increasing trend of tying these [wellness] programs to health insurance benefits, with penalties that can mean that the employee ends up paying more money for their health insurance. Additionally, these programs aren’t necessarily just harmless ways to encourage people to be healthier, they could also include office-wide, Biggest Loser-style group weight loss programs that can be triggering for people who struggle with disordered eating.”

The bottom line for employers: Don’t underestimate the impact of an eating disorder, even in a workforce full of adults. Think about eating disorders when you’re crafting messages for weight-loss programs.

When you’re thinking of your population, ask yourself, “How easy it is for them to find an in-network specialist provider who has adequate training, specifically treating this [eating disorder]?” said panelist Jenna Tregarthen, founder and CEO of Recovery Record.

And, as panelist Kristina Saffran, co-founder and CEO of Project Heal, said: “People are not quite sure where [eating disorders] belong. Although there’s a medical and a behavioral component, it is a mental health condition when it comes down to it. So, it should be a part of your behavioral health strategy.”

Other wellness topics on my mind …

Money and motivation: There’s an idea floating around that more money doesn’t motivate people; rather, other rewards like trips or non-cash prizes do. Every time I read or hear that, I have one major reaction, even though I don’t doubt there’s some truth in this. It makes perfect sense in certain contexts. Still, I hope companies don’t use this as an excuse not to give employees standard-of-living raises or to raise minimum wage. Financial wellness is more than just giving employees access to financial advisers or tips on how to save money. It’s also acknowledging that as the cost of living rises, appropriate compensation will help them with basic financial needs.

Hate crimes: Ever since the alleged hate crime against “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett, I’ve been seeing a lot online about the broader topic. For example, the number of hate crimes in Washington, D.C., have nearly doubled since 2016, with crimes based on sexual orientation accounting for half the city’s total hate crimes in 2018, according to the Washington Post. This is a major public policy and public health issue, but the workplace should take notice, too. I plead with employers — no matter what religion or morality your organization associates with — to think seriously about how your employees’ behavior and workplace policies impact LGBTQ people, especially now. Are you taking incidences of harassment or discrimination against this community seriously?

As columnist and employment law blogger Jon Hyman has written in several posts in Workforce’s blog The Practical Employer, there is no good reason for employers to be anti-LGBTQ rights. Hyman wrote:

When LGBTQ discrimination becomes universally illegal in the United States (and it will), and history looks back on this era during which this brand of discrimination was questionably legal, on what side of history do you want to be as an employer? The side that condoned (or, worse yet, participated in) this discrimination, or the side that took a stand against it?”

Good news from our columnist!: Jennifer Benz, the Benefits Beat columnist for Workforce magazine, had a major announcement recently. Benz Communications has joined forces with consulting firm The Segal Group. Benz is now the SVP communications leader at Segal Benz. Congratulations, Jennifer!

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