Family Wellbeing

Teen Eating Disorders Present a Crisis for Employees. Workplaces Can Offer a Lifeline with These 5 Strategies

Discussing overlooked mental health challenges for working parents is crucial for productivity, cost management, and a healthier organizational culture.

Written by
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Lynn Burrell
Lead Content Manager
Clinically reviewed by
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A male teenager and his mother have a conversation sitting on a couch

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    Over the past five years, a startling reality has been emerging: teen eating disorders (EDs) have doubled, with diagnoses among youth under 18 soaring over 107% from 2018 to 2022. 

    Why should workplace leaders pay attention? 

    In the U.S., over 91% of families with children have at least one employed parent. Teen EDs add to the stressors that many working parents struggle with. Despite the growing emphasis on mental health in the workplace, these challenges often go unnoticed.

    Employees experiencing disruption in their personal life carry that burden into their work lives. 

    A working parent or caregiver dealing with the daily stress, anxiety, and worry about a teen with an ED may find their productivity and focus impacted. Recognizing and addressing these challenges can contribute to a healthier and more supportive work environment.

    The impact of eating disorders on health spend 

    For workplace leaders, health spend is an additional consideration. Treating eating disorders can be expensive, especially if they advance to a point requiring hospitalization or inpatient care. A recent study revealed that individuals with an ED incur nearly $2,000 higher annual healthcare costs, with inpatient treatment reaching up to $20,000.

    Another study highlighted the substantial impact on the U.S., estimating total costs for EDs, including health system expenses, at almost $65 billion annually. 

    To mitigate overall health spend, providing proactive workplace interventions to parents of teens with EDs before they escalate is crucial. We know addressing behavioral health conditions has proven to be a particularly effective strategy. 

    Understanding teen eating disorders

    While eating disorders in boys are becoming more recognized and researched, girls and young women are particularly affected. Girls as young as six years old start worrying about their weight, and by the age of 14, 60-70% attempt to lose weight. 

    A recent global meta-analysis found that 22% of children and adolescents exhibit unhealthy eating behaviors indicative of an eating disorder. Furthermore, one in five teens struggle with disordered eating behaviors, which—while not meeting the standard for a full-fledged eating disorder—can be indicative of future development

    Widespread negative perceptions about body image among kids and young adults add to these challenges. For example, in the U.K., three out of four children and young people express dissatisfaction with their appearance, citing feelings of being fat, embarrassment about their body, not being muscular enough, or a belief that their body doesn’t reflect who they truly are.

    Impacts of eating disorders on working parents and caregivers

    In households where a teen is grappling with an eating disorder, stress levels are often heightened for both the teen and the parent or caregiver—especially if the teen is trying to conceal it. Meal times become focal points of conversations and pressures.

    For working adults in this situation, there’s a convergence of challenges at home and work. From a mental health standpoint, parents are faced with:

    • Feelings of guilt and self-blame
    • Constant worry and anxiety
    • A sense of helplessness and hopelessness
    • Strained family dynamics
    • Social isolation

    These challenges can spill over into the workplace, manifesting as:

    • Decreased concentration and productivity
    • Elevated stress and anxiety
    • Difficulty managing work-life balance
    • Impact on interpersonal relationships

    The role of workplaces

    So, how can workplaces serve as lifelines for working parents or caregivers navigating this complex set of challenges? Considering that working parents and caregivers spend a significant portion of their lives at work, it becomes an ideal place for education, resources, and peer and supervisor support. Access to both mental and physical health benefits is crucial for parents and their teens.

    The first aspect of workplace support involves ensuring employees feel at ease discussing personal challenges with their supervisor or HR leader. Support becomes significantly less effective if they hesitate to take this initial step and ask for help.

    Addressing stigma: education and empathy are key

    Normalizing talking about mental health and family-related struggles in the workplace is important for creating a healthier organizational culture. When individuals feel uncomfortable seeking mental health support due to stigma, they may miss out on the resources they desperately need. 

    Eating disorders often receive less attention than other mental health conditions, like anxiety or depression. To bridge this gap, consider the following strategies:

    1. Establish Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) for parents and caregivers, ensuring information reaches relevant populations so they can connect to others with similar experiences.
    2. Promote education and awareness through speakers who have experience with parenting a teen with an eating disorder or who have personally navigated such challenges.
    3. Facilitate small group conversations and education to encourage more personalized discussions than larger group settings.
    4. Normalize conversations about mental health, including eating disorders, making them a routine aspect of the organizational culture.
    5. Offer webinars and training sessions by clinicians, focusing on specific topics such as eating disorders.

    By addressing stigma, organizations can help alleviate feelings of guilt and shame among parents, making them more comfortable seeking the help they need.

    Transparent, comprehensive benefits provide a strong foundation

    Treating teen EDs requires a multidisciplinary approach involving both mental health and physical health providers. So, a comprehensive mental health benefits package, paired with medical benefits, is critical for parents seeking treatment for their teens with an ED.

    While having robust benefits is highly valuable for parents, their effectiveness is maximized when employees:

    • Are well educated about the details of benefit offerings
    • Know who their benefits point person is 
    • Understand the process of accessing benefits
    • Have examples of what benefit can help with a specific need

    Flexible work arrangements

    From an employer perspective, it’s important to recognize that eating disorders impact both mental and physical health. As a result, a teen experiencing an eating disorder requires support on both fronts, which is why flexible work arrangements are so impactful for parents. 

    For a working parent or caregiver, being actively involved in their teen’s meals, overcoming challenges related to the disorder, and managing appointments are central responsibilities. This may include driving their teen to inpatient or outpatient therapy, visits to a dietitian, dental appointments for oral hygiene, or supervised physical therapy.

    Given the amount of appointments involved in getting a teen treated for an eating disorder, working parents juggle these responsibilities alongside their jobs. Organizations can demonstrate creativity and flexibility by thinking outside the box, offering parents the flexibility they need—even if it’s a short-term arrangement during a crisis with a teen.  

    Confidentiality and privacy

    It’s important to be clear and avoid vague statements regarding confidentiality. In this context, confidentiality means that any information employees share about their teen’s condition and its impact on their work is treated with the utmost privacy.

    If an employee confides in their HR leader or supervisor about their teen and discloses that they’re struggling to manage their teen’s condition and work, they can expect a non-judgmental and confidential environment. Their privacy will be respected, and discussions will focus on providing support.

    To uphold this commitment to privacy, HR leaders can also ensure supervisors and leaders are well trained on respecting the confidentiality and privacy of employees who discuss mental health issues. This training emphasizes creating a supportive and non-judgmental space for employees seeking assistance. 

    Digging deep into empathy

    Expressing empathy is a starting point, but truly understanding and visualizing another person’s lived experience requires deeper effort. This entails comprehending the daily challenges they face and empathizing with the emotions they navigate. 

    It’s easy to get caught up in the hustle of deadlines. Building trust, empathy, and a workplace culture where employees feel supported—both by their workplace and each other—positively impacts people’s lives and allows employees to be more present, productive, and focused.

    Uncover the ripple effect of teen at-risk behavior and discover how your organization can become a lifeline for working parents—elevating employee well-being and fueling organizational success.

    About the Author
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    Lynn Burrell
    Lead Content Manager

    Lynn came to Spring Health from her start-up company Weldon, a parenting wellness app acquired by Spring Health in March 2022, where she was a co-founder. She has extensive experience working with children and families with Learning Disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Mental Health and Physical Health challenges, and Executive Functioning Difficulties. Lynn has a Master’s degree in Early Childhood Assessment and a Professional Diploma in School Psychology. She has certifications and has practiced in New York, New Jersey, and California.

    About the clinical reviewer
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