Thousands of people in the UK are diagnosed with eating disorders every year, with many workforces including employers who are facing these conditions. Eating disorders are a difficult and sensitive issue for anyone who has tried to approach this with the individual so employers need to understand their legal obligations to these employees and how they can provide help and support.
How to support an employee
A common misconception held surrounding people with eating disorders is that it will seriously impede their ability to perform and excel at their job. This isn't necessarily the case, as, on the whole, employees with an eating disorder will make a conscious effort to avoid their disorder from being noticed and therefore, it is unusual for their eating disorder to affect the quality of their work or be an issue for their colleagues.
In accordance with any other employee, those who may be suffering from an eating disorder want to feel like a valued, respected and accepted member of the team. It is important to note that an eating disorder is not an attention seeking tactic, but a symptom of underlying emotional distress, and as such, these individuals may benefit from being given clear guidelines as to what is expected of them, in addition to receiving regular managerial feedback and support.
Making reasonable adjustment
Eating disorders are a form of mental health condition and therefore are likely to qualify for protection under the Equality Act 2010 as a disability, provided that the adverse effects of the impairment are substantial, long-term and affect normal day to day activities. As such, an employee with an eating disorder would be protected from less favourable treatment because of their condition or less favourable treatment for something arising from their condition.
In light of this, employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to their employee's role. These changes are likely to be non-tangible, relating to working practices and policies.
The aim of the adjustment is to remove the barrier that the disability presents to the employee in carrying out their role effectively. Where eating disabilities are concerned, reasonable adjustments may include longer lunch breaks if the employee eats at a slower place; removing a requirement to attend work lunches, or allowing the employee time off during peak working hours to attend medical appointments relating to the disorder.
The relationship between the employer and employee should remain professional at all times, which means managers should avoid trying to counsel an employee and assuming diagnosis, as this may lead to a discrimination claim. Instead, employers should provide all employees with access to free resources, which they can utilise to seek guidance and support for both physical and mental health related issues. These may include a confidential telephone advice service and/or one-to-one counselling sessions with a fully qualified counsellor.
Eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia, are a mental health condition that can qualify as a disability under the Equality Act 2010 if the adverse effects of the impairment are substantial and long-term. This legislation protects them from being treated less favourably because of their eating disorder or because of something arising from their condition. Discrimination arising from a disability is likely to arise where employers are taking action against employees because of their absence levels where their absence is because of their eating disorder.
In addition, employers are placed under a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to remove any barriers that the eating disorder places on the employee's ability to carry out their role effectively. Some reasonable adjustments that may be appropriate are removing a requirement to attend client lunches or allowing time off work on short notice to attend appointments or treatment. It's important to discuss any possible reasonable adjustments with the employee themselves and with medical experts to ensure this duty is met.
As many employers are likely to have a lack of medical awareness around eating disorders, it is important that they are not taking it upon themselves to counsel the employee or give them advice about combatting the condition. Instead, it will be more useful to provide appropriate resources to the employee or signpost where they can seek help for themselves. If the business offers employee benefits, such as private healthcare or a confidential telephone well-being and counselling service, they can remind the employee of how to access this. A reminder that the benefit is confidential and information will not be disclosed to the company will encourage the employee to make use of this service.