Friday 24 September 2021 6:15 am

Virtues of City life hide high-functioning eating disorders in our boardrooms

Hope Virgo is an author and mental health campaigner

Imagine being sat in a conference room with 100 people, picture their faces, their jobs, the conversations that you might have had with some of them, the ones that maybe you had your eye on to network with.

Statistically out of that one hundred people in that room, sixteen people will at some point have an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are still an extremely stigmatised illness. We often get stuck on that image of a white emaciated teenage girl, but only six percent of people with an eating disorder are ever underweight. Perhaps there are some of you that think it’s a phase, something someone grows out of or even something that a person chooses.

These perceptions are completely inaccurate and stop people reaching out for support.

If the numbers show there are this many people struggling with their relationships with food or exercise, that this many people have an eating disorder. Then the question has to be: where are they?

Many people don’t realise there’s anything wrong, perhaps they have been complimented for their weight or muscular change, or they have been doing it for so long it’s just normal life.

Would it surprise you that since 2007, there has been a five-fold increase in men aged 35-44 years old with diagnosable eating disorders?  

I could quote stats all day, but what these numbers don’t show is the reality of the person struggling, what it’s like for their families and loved ones. Not all eating disorders are visible. When we fixate on what someone looks like, we miss a much bigger problem: high functioning people who also have an eating disorder.

The cost of eating disorders in the UK last year was a staggering £9.4bn, according to a new report. Part of this figure is a loss of productivity – £4.8bn – healthcare costs – £1.7bn – and carers costs – £1.1bn. We need to have a national strategy for eating disorders but we also need to have more screening for them.

Implementing a screening tool for eating disorders in workplaces could be the start of diagnosing people early on. But this is the tricky bit. According to sports dietician and eating disorders specialist Renee McGregor, many of the people who wind up at her clinic are high achievers, perfectionists. Sound familiar? Many of these traits are not truly recognised as problematic and so spiral into dysfunction easily.

These are characteristics that we want in our business and we duly praise people for turning up to work early or for squeezing in the gym alongside a 10 hour day. It’s not that these traits cause eating disorders. Working hard, exercising and eating well are things we respect for a reason: they’re good for us. But they do make eating disorders socially acceptable. Further down the line we know that those with eating disorders will often have to reduce their ability to work.

That translates to lost time, lost money and lost talent for businesses. It can also mean a lost life. Most people suffering from eating disorders don’t die from being from their low weight – they are lost, tragically, to suicide.

If we place undue emphasis on people losing weight or losing sleep to exercise, we contribute to a tradition of requiring people to perform their best, all of the time.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.