Healthcare Workers Face a Higher Risk of Disordered Eating During the Pandemic

It’s no secret that healthcare workers have some of the most important occupations. But with that responsibility comes immense pressure, long hours, and stress.

These high levels of stress are associated with worsening anxiety and depression, with nearly 400 physicians dying by suicide each year. That’s double the rate of the general population [1]. Add in a global pandemic, and the stress becomes even greater.

Although the beginning of vaccine distribution seems to present light at the end of the tunnel, healthcare workers are feeling the effects of an epidemic that has gone on for nine months and counting. They’re seeing more patients than ever before and, with them, more deaths.

The combination of long hours, lack of personal life, and being surrounded by suffering has led to dangerous levels of stress for some healthcare workers. Many are working without breaks or meals, leaving them physically and emotionally exhausted — not to mention starving — at the end of the day [2].

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This has put healthcare workers at an even higher risk of developing mental health concerns, including eating disorders, as they attempt to cope with the demands of their jobs.

Extra Stress for Healthcare Workers During a Pandemic

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most serious concerns was hospitals becoming overrun with patients. Facilities around the country were struggling to keep up with the sudden increase in patients. Many hospitals found themselves understaffed and underprepared.

While many people lost their jobs and plenty of those who kept them began working from the safety of their homes, healthcare workers were toiling day and night to save as many lives as possible, putting themselves in danger as protective gear became scarce. With not enough hospital beds, some were even forced to decide which patients would be treated first.

Over the past nine months, hospitals have become better equipped to handle the COVID-19 crisis, and the stream of patients has slowed, but healthcare workers are still tirelessly doing their jobs.

Registered nurse Hugo Mercardo describes the pandemic as the most stressful time of his seven-year career and explains a change in his eating habits that appears to be common among healthcare workers.

“I just pretty much stuff my food and take a quick lunch and go back on the floor,” he said. “I think it’s mostly due to stress because we use eating as a way to get that immediate comfort after a shift” [2].

For healthcare workers putting in a 12-hour shift, this might be the only way they have to eat a meal.

Turning to Food to Cope

Healthcare workers with higher stress levels due to the pandemicFor many individuals, food is a way to cope with stress. This pattern can quickly turn into disordered eating, however. The eating behavior that Mercardo described may begin as an unhealthy habit.

But if food becomes the source of comfort and stress relief, this practice can develop into a compulsion that can be difficult to control. Because healthcare workers don’t have the time to eat complete meals throughout the day, they are more likely to eat large amounts at once, which could lead to an unhealthy relationship with food.

The reliance on food for comfort that healthcare workers like Mercardo report may lead them to struggle with behaviors such as bingeing and purging to ease the emotional pain caused by the current crisis.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), eating disorders have increased by 70%-80% in recent months. “We know that eating disorders have a strong link to trauma,” says Claire Mysko, CEO of NEDA. “Many people with eating disorders have past experiences with trauma, and this (pandemic era) is a collective trauma” [3].

It’s no wonder why so many of those with new or worsened eating disorders are the frontline fighters of the pandemic. ACUTE, located in Denver, Colorado, is one of many eating disorder treatment centers that has seen an influx of patients during the pandemic.

The number of healthcare workers seeking treatment at ACUTE has nearly quadrupled compared to last year [2]. With admissions continuing to grow, it’s important that healthcare workers take the time to recognize the signs of disordered eating and receive the help they need.

How Healthcare Workers Can Stay Healthy

Most of their time is spent taking care of others, but healthcare workers often overlook or don’t prioritize their own health. Some may not even recognize that they have an eating disorder or may not acknowledge the severity of the condition.

Out of all diagnosed mental health disorders, eating disorders have the second-highest mortality rate [3]. It’s more important than ever to check on your physical and mental health.

If you’re a healthcare worker who is overworked and overstressed, make sure you understand the signs of an eating disorder. Some symptoms that healthcare workers should watch for include:

  • Skipping meals
  • Noticeable fluctuations in weight
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dizziness
  • Inability to control how much you eat
  • Rituals surrounding binge eating
  • Feelings of guilt, depression, or disgust about eating
  • Purging (vomiting) after meals

Healthcare workers who may be struggling with stress and disordered eating can try these strategies:

  • Avoid skipping meals
  • Prep your meals ahead of time to ensure that you’re eating a healthy amount
  • Establish a post-work routine that doesn’t revolve around food
  • Find healthy ways to comfort yourself, such as exercise, meditation, or listening to music
  • Ensure that you’re getting seven to eight hours of sleep each night

Healthcare workers are heroes during this time of uncertainty and fear. It’s important that they get the support they need to manage stress in a healthy way. If you find yourself struggling with an eating disorder, help is available.


Resources:

[1] Krisberg, K. (2018). Concerns grow about burnout, stress in health care workers: New demands adding to burden. The Nation’s Health. Retrieved from: https://www.thenationshealth.org/content/48/8/1.3#:~:text=While%20health%20care%20is%20an,makes%20it%20harder%20to%20connect.

[2] Beech, K. (2020, Nov. 11). More health care workers are suffering from eating disorders amid pandemic. The Denver Channel. Retrieved from: https://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/national/more-health-care-workers-are-suffering-from-eating-disorders-amid-pandemic.

[3] Noguchi, Y. (2020, Sept. 8). Eating disorders thrive in anxious times, and pose a lethal threat. NPR. Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/09/08/908994616/eating-disorders-thrive-in-anxious-times-and-pose-a-lethal-threat


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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 January 12, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on January 12, 2021, 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.