Tag Archives: coworker

How to Address Eating Disorders at Work

In America, 30 million people will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their life. With statistics this high, it is likely that someone you know, or perhaps even you, has struggled with this mental health issue. Family members, friends and even coworkers can struggle with anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. Despite their prevalence, eating disorders are treatable. It is important to know the signs and symptoms as well as what to do if someone you know is at risk—especially in the workplace.

Our workplaces are often a source of stress. Deadlines, long hours and strained relationships can leave us feeling tired and vulnerable. When we feel down, we can be more susceptible to mental illness, including eating disorders, and stressful times can exacerbate existing conditions. With eating disorders, as with most illnesses, early intervention is important.

Businesses are in an excellent position to help employees who may be struggling with an eating disorder. Wellness programs can help raise awareness and encourage treatment. And anonymous screening programs can be an effective way to assist employees.

Anonymous and confidential mental health screenings are designed to help individuals examine any thoughts or behaviors that may be associated with eating disorders. After completing the self-assessment, users are provided with helpful resources and treatment information, if necessary. Although the screenings are not diagnostic, they will determine if someone is exhibiting symptoms associated with an eating disorder and if that someone should seek help.

Some common eating disorder signs and symptoms include:

  • Frequent comments about feeling “fat” or overweight
  • In general, behaviors and attitudes indicating that weight loss, dieting and the control of food are becoming primary concerns
  • Skipping meals or taking small portions of food at regular meals
  • Hiding body with baggy clothes
  • Evidence of binge eating, including disappearance of large amounts of food in short periods or lots of wrappers and containers indicating consumption of large amounts of food
  • Maintaining an excessive, rigid exercise regimen—despite weather, fatigue, illness or injury—because of the need to “burn off” calories
  • Drinking excessive amounts of water or using excessive amounts of mouthwash, mints and gum

If you are concerned that a coworker may have an eating disorder, there are things you can do to help. Rather than focus on issues related to their physical appearance, let your coworker know you have noticed a change in their behavior. Perhaps the quality of their work has suffered or their mood has changed. Let them know that you care and offer helpful resources. If your workplace offers a wellness or screening program, share that information. Anonymous eating disorder screenings are always available at MyBodyScreening.org. Be sure to follow-up with the coworker to see how they are doing. Support systems are important as they work toward recovery.

The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention is a public-private partnership advancing the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, put forward by the U.S. surgeon general. The alliance supports mental health and suicide prevention programs in the workplace and endorses mental health screenings as part of those programs. Screenings can make a difference in mental health and suicide prevention.

As millions of adults struggle with eating disorders, workplaces can make an impact by spreading awareness, offering screenings and encouraging treatment. It is in the best interest of an employer to help workers stay healthy and productive. Wellness and screening programs are a proven way to do this.

A Manager’s Response to Workplace Suicide

There are more than 41,000 suicide deaths per year in the U.S; the majority occur among people of working age. This number alone can dramatically affect the workplace. Add to this number that there are about six people affected, many being coworkers, for every suicide death, and the potential impact to the workplace quickly becomes evident.

Even workplaces with the most comprehensive suicide prevention policies and programs are not immune from a suicide that occurs at work or off-site. Because of the high likelihood that at some point a workplace will experience an employee suicide (or a suicide by a client, vendor or employee family member), it is critical that managers know how to respond and facilitate appropriate “postvention” services designed to help employees and the organization recover and return to normal. Postvention services include psychological first aid, crisis intervention and other support services that managers can facilitate for employees following a workplace suicide or suicide attempt.

In 2013, the Workplace Postvention Task Force of the American Association of Suicidology and the Workplace Task Force of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, in partnership with the Carson J Spencer Foundation and Crisis Care Network, wrote, “A Manager’s Guide to Suicide in the Workplace: 10 Action Steps for Dealing with the Aftermath of a Suicide.” The guide has been evaluated by managers in diverse work organizations, including by leaders in human resources, management, safety, occupational health and wellness and employee assistance programs. The overwhelming feedback about the guide was that it is useful; workplace leaders who reviewed the guide but have not yet experienced a workplace suicide plan to keep the guide as a resource.

As the title of the guide implies, it provides managers with 10 specific actions they can take following a workplace suicide. The actions are divided into phases to help the manager work through the acute phase, recovery phase and reconstructing phase. Additional useful tools for managers include how to draft notification memos and prepare external announcements to disseminate to the broader workplace and the media. Some of the most useful tools in the guide include checklists for how to implement each action, descriptions of how to identify roles for managers during the response, instructions for following crisis decision-making flowcharts and templates for drafting crisis communication messages. The overwhelming majority of users said they would recommend this resource to other managers.

This blog is designed to encourage you to look at the guide and consider using it as a resource, should the need arise in your workplace. We also welcome your feedback on suggestions to make the guide more useful to all workplace leaders. Feedback can be sent to the senior program director at the Carson J Spencer Foundation, jess@carsonjspencer.org. With so many working-aged adults dying by suicide each year, managers need to be prepared to deal with such a crisis. This guide provides concrete steps managers can follow after a suicide to psychologically support their workforce and provide leadership to the work organization as they work to return quickly to normal operations.

Five Things Employers Need to Know About Mental Health

“The workplace is the last crucible of sustained human contact for many of the 30,000 people who kill themselves each year in the United States. A coworker’s suicide has a deep, disturbing impact on work mates. For managers, such tragedies pose challenges no one covered in management school.” (Shellenbarger, 2001)1

Five things employers need to know about workplace mental health and suicide include some bad news…

  1. Depression is a top driver of health care costs to employers.2 3 Depression represents employers' highest per capita medical spending. (The per-capita annual cost of depression is significantly more than that for hypertension or back problems, and comparable to that for diabetes or heart disease. People with depression also have more sick days than people suffering from other conditions.)4
  2. If we take a snapshot of any workplace at any given point in time, at least one in five people will have a diagnosable mental health condition.5 The most common are mood disorders like depression or substance abuse disorders like alcohol abuse.
  3. The majority of people who die by suicide are of working age. While other groups’ suicide rates are holding steady or decreasing, the rates for men and women in the middle years have increased significantly over the last decade.

And some good news…

  1. By engaging in simple preventative steps (e.g., stress management or depression screenings) anyone can help maintain their own mental health. By learning practical tactics (e.g., becoming suicide prevention gatekeepers or referring coworkers to employee assistance services) employees can help promote the mental health and safety of others.6 7
  2. A comprehensive and evidence-based approach to suicide prevention and mental health promotion exists,8 is cost-effective9 and gives employers a clear guide on what to do. By being “visible, vocal and visionary” leaders, employers can set the expectation that a culture of health and safety is a priority and that mental health promotion and suicide prevention are a critical part of that priority.

While managers often feel responsible for the well-being of the people they supervise, very few have been given any substantial training in how to identify people in a suicide crisis and how to link them to life-saving care. Employers can play a critical role in closing this gap through a comprehensive approach.

A five-year analysis of the nation’s death rates released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the suicide rate among 45- to 54-year-olds increased 20% from 1999 to 2004, while rates for youth and elderly persons are decreasing. The Surgeon General’s National Strategy for Suicide Prevention targets employers as critical stakeholders in the prevention of suicide.10

While suicide prevention may seem to be too intensive for workplaces to take on, there are many upstream prevention strategies that do not take much effort but yield tremendous results. Here are low-cost, high impact strategies employers can take to promote mental health and prevent suicide:

  1. Promote the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. This free resource (1-800-273-8255 [TALK]) is available to employees 24/7 and used by both people in crisis and those who are trying to support them. The line connects to local crisis call centers and is answered by certified volunteers, most of whom have had more training and experience in de-escalating suicidal behavior than many of our mental health professionals.
  2. Participate in National Screening Days.  Whenever we can identify a health condition early in its course, we are in a much stronger position to prevent it from escalating. Employers can help coordinate screening days as a part of a larger national awareness effort. Mental Health Screening offers workplaces promotional and screening tools for National Depression Screening Day (October), National Eating Disorders Awareness Program (February), National Alcohol Screening Day (April), and National Anxiety Disorders Screening Day (May). In addition, their WorkplaceResponse program gives employees an anonymous opportunity to self-screen for depression, bipolar disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, generalized anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and alcohol use disorders.  These screenings offer immediate results and referrals to an organization’s employee assistance program and community-based resources.
  3. Reward Mental Wellness. For example, the Working Minds program offers a contest every year to workplaces that have developed mentally healthy policies and practices that demonstrate positive outcomes like retention, lower absenteeism, and higher employee satisfaction. These workplaces then become the model for others.
  4. Change the Conversation Through Social Marketing.  By showing models of people who have experienced significant psychological distress and who have recovered and are thriving, employers can show that struggles are normal and increase a sense of efficacy among the hopeless. For example, workplaces can develop a multimedia campaign that lets people know they are not alone if they are thinking about suicide and that many resources exist to help. If the company’s leaders are courageous enough to model this message, the culture of the organization usually shifts accordingly.
  5. Offer Educational Programs on Mental Illness. Employee assistance professionals can provide “lunch-and-learn” sessions that increase awareness about the signs and symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder, alcohol dependence, and other mental illnesses that can lead to suicide.  These presentations should share how treatments are effective while dissipating misperceptions people have that create barriers to care.
  6. Training Staff to Become Suicide Prevention Gatekeepers. In addition to offering general training, workplaces should train key people in suicide prevention gatekeeper methods. The concept is similar to CPR – train lay people to know the warning signs of a life-threatening situation and how to sustain a person’s life until they can be linked to professional care. Many models for this training exist, including Working Minds, QPR, and ASIST. For more information, review the gatekeeper matrix on the Suicide Prevention Resource Center website.

As our workplaces accelerate from the industrial age to the information age and beyond, we come to increasingly rely on our mental muscle to get us through our workday. Like any other muscle, our mental muscle can get injured or fatigued, and we can experience high levels of distress, sometimes leading to a suicide crisis. Workplaces can prepare for this in many ways and develop a comprehensive approach to reduce suicide risk and promote mental resiliency.

For more information, visit WorkingMinds.org. Working Minds is one of the first programs in the country to provide workplaces with a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention. Working Minds is a priority program of the Carson J Spencer Foundation based in Golden, Colorado. In a little more than a lunch hour, employees at all levels of a workplace can be taught how to identify warning signs and risk factors and help link distressed coworkers to appropriate care.

1 Schellenbarger, S. (2001, June 13). Impact of colleague’s suicide is strongly felt in workplace. The Wall Street Journal.

2 Mental Health America (n.d.) Depression in the Workplace.

3 Witters, D. (2013, July 24). Depression Costs U.S. Workplaces $23 Billion in Absenteeism.

4 Managed Care Magazine (2006, Spring) Depression in the Workplace Cost Employers Billions Each Year: Employers Take Lead in Fighting Depression.

5 Gray, T. (2004) ValueOptions Articles – Managers.

6 Paul, R. & Spencer-Thomas, S. (2012). Changing Workplace Culture to End the Suicide Standstill. National Council Magazine. (2), 126-127.

7 Spencer-Thomas, S. (2012). Developing a workplace suicide prevention program. Journal of Employee Assistance, 42(1), 12-15.

8 National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention (2013) Comprehensive Blueprint for Workplace Suicide Prevention. Retrieved from http://actionallianceforsuicideprevention.org/task-force/workplace/cspp

9 National Institute of Mental Health (2007, September) Workplace Depression Screening, Outreach and Enhanced Treatment Improves Productivity, Lowers Employer Costs.

10 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service. (2001). National strategy for suicide prevention: Goals and objectives for action, p. 67.