What Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) Should Know about Eating Disorders

Nature Path in Woods into Sunlight

It is unlikely that anyone reading this does not understand the challenges that arise in the intersection between personal and work life. It is impossible to completely separate our private lives from our work lives. In fact, the challenges of our personal lives can impact our ability to function successfully at work. This is where Employee Assistance Programs come in.

It is impossible to keep the psychological, physical, cognitive, and emotional toll of an eating disorder from bleeding into every other aspect of life, including work. For this reason, Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) must be open to addressing eating disorders so that employees can receive the support they need without their disorder impairing their job performance and employment status.

What are Employee Assistance Programs?

Many of you may not even be aware of what an EAP is, but they’re exactly what they sound like – programs that assist employees in receiving the support they need to deal with daily life challenges that may or may not relate to their work, but, interfere with it nonetheless.

The United States government Office of Personnel Management (OPM) defines EAPs as, “voluntary, work-based program that offers free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services to employees who have personal and/or work-related problems [1].”

EAP counselors “also work in a consultative role with managers and supervisors to address employee and organizational challenges and needs [1].” The OPM website goes on to specify complex issues that these programs can address, such as “alcohol and other substance abuse, stress, grief, family problems, and psychological disorders [1].”

You may notice the absence of eating disorders in that list, and that is what is important to address. Thirty million Americans are impacted by disordered eating in their lifetime, and two-thirds of our adult lives are spent in the workplace [2].

This means that it is highly likely at least one of your employees has, or is currently, struggling with disordered eating. Not only that, but these disorders are the most prevalent mental illness experienced by women. Anorexia Nervosa also has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness.

Not including eating disorder treatment and support services, or educating EAP counselors on these disorders, means many individuals may be struggling alone and are at risk for severe consequences.

What Should These Professionals Know?

Man working on EAP paperworkAside from prevalence, it is crucial that EAP counselors and professionals have an awareness of the warning signs of eating disorders.

Some of these warning signs include social isolation, having strict food rituals, low self-esteem, fixation over food or appearance, unhealthy exercise habits, eating alone or in secret, hiding or hoarding food, personality changes, severe weight-changes in a short period of time, constant discussion of diets or “clean eating,” and gastrointestinal distress [3].

EAPs should work to not only be aware of these themselves, but to educate employees and leadership about them so that they can provide intervention or support if necessary.

It would also be helpful for EAPs to explore the Job Accommodations Network’s list of questions to ask employees regarding the limitations and challenges their disorder manifests as [4].

EAPs should also be aware of, and inform workplace leadership, of the benefit of having insurance for employees that cover eating disorder treatment, as those that receive early interventions and effective treatments are proven to have better outcomes and cost less money in treatments in the long-run.

It is also helpful to check that this insurance would cover nutritional counseling and general medical attention, as eating disorders are not purely psychological disorders and require a multi-faceted treatment team.

Most important for EAPs to be aware of is that these disorders are very real. They will usurp every aspect of an individual’s life and can even take the entirety of it away. Supporting your employees means being aware of these dangerous disorders and having resources in place for them.


[1] Unknown (2020). What is an employee assistance program? U.S. Office of Personnel Management, retrieved from https://www.opm.gov/FAQS/QA.aspx?fid=4313c618-a96e-4c8e-b078-1f76912a10d9&pid=2c2b1e5b-6ff1-4940-b478-34039a1e1174.

[2] Siegel, J. A., Sawyer, K. B. (2018). Eating disorders in the workplace: a qualitative investigation of women’s experiences. Psychology of Women Quarterly.

[3] Buck, C. A. (2018). Work/life connections – EAP offers food for thought for eating disorders awareness month. Vanderbilt University, retrieved from https://news.vanderbilt.edu/2018/02/14/worklife-connections-eap-offers-food-for-thought-for-eating-disorders-awareness-month/.

[4] Unknown (2020). Accommodation and compliance: eating disorders. Job Accommodation Network, retrieved from https://askjan.org/disabilities/Eating-Disorders.cfm.

About the Author:

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published September 28, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on September 28, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.