I believe I have a direct who has an eating disorder, possibly anorexia. She is young and fits many of the criteria I have read on the web for this type of condition. We have a strong relationship, mainly thanks to the weekly one on ones we have consistently done over the past 18 months.

I have two questions:

1) Suggestions for how to handle this as her manager. If I mention this I am sure she would either deny it or get upset.

2) Any workplace legalities I should be aware of?





bug_girl's picture

First, IF the person has anorexia, it is a disability. It is a mental and physical disorder.  So, as such, there is a whole host of legal workplace issues surrounding disability and communication about it--you might want to discretely inquire at HR about employee support services.

Second, I am not a lawyer, grain of salt, yadda yadda.

Third--since I supervise a fleet of college interns, I run into eating disorders on a semi-regular basis.  There is a nice overview here, with suggestions of how to intervene. Their suggestions are the sorts of things that fit well into MT:

1) Set aside a time to talk privately and respectfully about your concerns in a caring and straightforward way.  Try to pick a time when you won’t be distracted or pressured for time.
2) Listen closely.  Encourage your student to talk about the struggles they are experiencing adjusting to college or feeling good about themselves.  Even though students might not feel comfortable talking about their eating disorder behaviors, they may be able to share their anxieties about doing well or their recent discouragements.
3) Communicate your concerns with behavioral examples and in a non judgmental way. Avoid placing shame, blame, or guilt for the student’s actions or attitudes.  This will only cause  the student to clam up.
4) Explain that you think these things may indicate a need for professional help. Offer to find out about services on campus and support your student by helping them to make an appointment and explore insurance coverage for private treatment.

I can't reinforce #2 enough. People don't like to talk about their mental health--and you aren't qualified to help much besides be supportive.

But you can get them to talk about things that make their health worse, and that is something you can help with.

Big props to you for noticing and caring about your employee!

But proceed with caution.

mhawkins's picture

Yep:  sounds like an HR issue.  I would not want to get in the middle of this one.  Of course, I'd be very supportive, but I don't know too many managers that are experts on this subject.  Better leave this for the folks in HR -- and hopefully they can offer some suggestions to help everyone cope.

mmann's picture
Licensee Badge


Have you listened to the pair of podcasts on Managing Through a Personal Crisis?  I suspect they'll help you to discover what assistance HR can provide and give you the approach you'll need to bring it up with your direct.

Managing Through a Personal Crisis Part One

Managing Throough a Personal Crisis Part Two


asteriskrntt1's picture

Unless you know 100% that this "disability" is affecting her work behaviour, I don't think you should do anything as her boss.  Are you going to start diagnosing every direct you have?  Bob, I think you might be prediabetic.  Sally, you have signs of hypertension.  Where does it end or start?  There is a very fine line between caring as a boss and intervening in their personal lives.  I don't think you can go there with this.



TomW's picture
Training Badge

Let's focus this on one area: Is there an impact on her work?

If not, leave it alone. As a manager, you can't insert yourself into it if there is not an impact on her work. If so, then focus only on the impact to the team/project/productivity.

terrih's picture

Gosh, this topic gives me a flashback to when I was in college at a private school. One evening a group of administrators hied all the girls out of the dorm for an inspection... mostly they looked at our hands, top & bottom... only later did we learn they were looking for signs of anorexia. (If I remember correctly, this was only a few months after Karen Carpenter's death... betraying my age, oh well)

I never knew for sure, but I think they already had an idea that a certain girl might be anorexic, and this was somebody's idea of being "fair" and not "singling someone out"... but at the time, it felt like a visit from the Gestapo!

Not sure if that's helpful or not. But cathartic for me. :)

tomjedrz's picture
Licensee Badge


Mental illness (like addiction) is a thorny area in workplace law, just as it is thorny in interpersonal relationships.  Be very careful.  Remember, whether you consider her a friend, that you are her manager and a representative of the company.

First, consider whether HR should be involved.  Unless you have some concrete evidence of a problem, I would think not.  But you might want to make a discreet inquiry about the company policies and resources.  Perhaps mention that you were reading about a manager having an issue on this site and you wonder what your company would do!

Second, confidentiality is paramount here.  Do not mention your suspicions to **anyone** other than HR.  Don't ask a peer for advice .. even if you couch it in anonymity you only have so many directs, and how many of them are skinny women!

Third, stay focused on behavior and performance.  Give her feedback (+ and -) as appropriate, and avoid the temptation to treat her differently. But when she does have issues (and she will), be direct.   

Fourth, if you are noticing it, others are as well.  Do not participate in gossip, and shut it down as much as you can.  Frankly, it will make the situation worse.

Good luck!