Work Stress and Eating Disorders

April 18, 2024

“I had so many meetings today that I didn’t even have time for lunch.”

Starting from college and into most of my early career, this phrase would come up frequently, often worn as a badge of honor. I, and many of my peers, were so focused on accomplishments at school and work that it truly felt like there wasn’t any space to think about our health. Many nights, after a stressful & long day without food, energy, and nutrition, my body was left starving, and I’d fight a hunger that couldn’t be satiated. By the end of the night, I was left feeling bloated, uncomfortably full, and guilty about not eating “healthier.” This left me with a resolve to be healthier the next day by eating less and compensating through working out, and this resulted in this endless hamster wheel of disordered eating.

Even though I was well aware of the signs of an eating disorder from being diagnosed in college, it was so much harder to recognize these old behaviors re-emerge in the workplace many years later. Disordered eating often felt normalized. It came in the form of well-intended company exercise challenges, the proliferation of intermittent eating, constant self-criticism and negative body talk, and a culture of endless days where missing meals were celebrated. While these instances & practices may not impact some, for people like me who were in recovery from an eating disorder, it often pushed me to the precipice. Those company exercise challenges often reignited the compulsive exercising that had been such a core part of my identity that I’d been trying to keep balanced. It opened this opportunity to be celebrated for behavior that had fueled my eating disorder for so many years. The various diet practices like intermittent eating, keto, juice cleanses, and more fueled that restrictive side that I’d work so hard to counterbalance. The reality is that for many years in the workplace, the line between disordered eating and eating disorder was likely much more blurred than I’d allow myself to admit.

It was also difficult to admit because it felt like having an eating disorder (and certainly getting treatment) wasn’t an option anymore. I had worked so hard to advance in my career and craved financial independence to take care of myself and give back to my parents, who had sacrificed so much to give me the opportunities I now had. Taking time off of work felt impossible, yet most treatment options would require this sacrifice. I tried to piece together some version of support through therapy (which I often had to squeeze in on the weekends and once was forced to take from the office, which I don’t recommend). However, often, my therapists didn’t understand eating disorders and even had screening questions that excluded clients who had eating disorders due to fear of the risk and complexity. So, by default, I’d deny the option of having an eating disorder and felt scared to even bring it up in therapy when the therapist would suggest getting more exercise as a cure for the anxiety & depression I was experiencing.

For me, I had the privilege of having insurance that allowed me to finally see a registered dietitian and therapist who were culturally thoughtful and eating disorder informed to realize that I needed to nourish myself throughout the day and that skipping meals because I was “too busy” influenced my energy levels, drove the binge eating behaviors in the evening, and ultimately led to long-term detrimental impacts to my body. Most importantly, it took finding a community of other people in recovery for me to realize that recovery doesn’t have to be perfect and that there were spaces to find support when I was at the precipice. My community has helped me to realize that there are alternatives to the diet culture that often can be pervasive in the workplace and that there are people who share the same priorities & values that I have to prioritize healing. 

As the co-founder and CEO of Arise, I have the privilege and honor of being able to work with an incredible team of care advocates, therapists, dietitians, psychiatrists, and primary care doctors who are trying to make access to eating disorder care a little bit easier for those who are struggling with that very real work stress that can often make disordered eating feel like an unavoidable part of life. 

Looking towards the future, I hope that one day, we can shift the conversation at work from “I didn’t have time to eat today” to “Let’s take a lunch break together” and move from intensive exercise challenges to creating more time & space for our team members to enjoy life & movement outside of work and on their terms. I know firsthand that it will not always be perfect (the often neglected “lunch walk” block on my calendar is a glaring reminder of this), but change doesn’t have to be perfect or happen all at once. We can take things one day at a time.

Leading a team, or a member of an HR team? Here are some first steps you can take to cultivate a healthy relationship with food amongst teams:

  • Refrain from organizing work weight loss challenges and instead focus on prioritizing overall well-being. This could involve arranging outdoor group trips for physical activity or team bonding activities emphasizing health and wellness.
  • Educate themselves about the signs of eating disorders and disordered eating, including dispelling common stereotypes associated with these conditions.
  • Distribute resources during Mental Health Awareness Month in May and National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, which falls between February 28th and March 5th in 2024.