National Eating Disorders Association
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Are American Job Listings Potentially Triggering for Those in Recovery?

Laura Dumitrescu

I started research about job descriptions, work environments, and eating disorders after one friend asked for my opinion about a job position she was interested in applying for. She wrote: “If you were an employer looking for A+ candidates, would you say, after looking at my resume, that I was a perfect fit?” I knew my friend didn’t usually use a superlative like “perfect,” which made me curious and I simply assumed that as an active job seeker, she must have picked it from job descriptions.

After more digging, my friend showed me a current email that she received from a potential employer: “I’m interested in scheduling a phone interview to hear about your work experiences and discuss the position in more detail. We have a lot in the pipeline and are only looking for “A+” people.” Do employers really think that only A+ people can do a good job? Why is that a selection criteria anyway?

I started asking myself what impact could job descriptions really have on job seekers like my friend? How could it influence the way they think about their self-confidence, especially regarding their skills? Knowing that my friend was struggling with an eating disorder and still in recovery, I wanted to know if this email or other pieces that she might have read were something that contributed to her problems and made her feel distressed. The fact is that job seekers who struggle to find the right job are vulnerable to depression, fear, and low self-esteem. Could this be even worse for people with an eating disorder and will it jeopardize their recovery?

When Language Becomes Uncomfortable

I have a background in PR and a long-lasting interest in advertising and marketing. I have always been fascinated by the American way and style of branding. I love watching Super Bowl advertisements, but I am skeptical about using a similar style in job descriptions. Synonyms like “superheroes,” “insane,” or “maniacs” in the context of a work environment could not only send the wrong message about the company, but also become problematic over time. 

Those responsible for the job descriptions know that reading them can become really boring and probably feel the urge to stand out of the masses, which is understandable. Using sentences like “Please explain in your cover letter why you are a perfect fit for the position…,” are common practice and nobody thinks about the problematic nature of the word “perfect” anymore. Words like “insane” or “perfect” might be integrated by Human Resources to make a job description stand out and attract a specific category of candidates. But why would a company celebrate “insanity” at work? No breaks, working like a robot, or even constantly having a tunnel view? 

My friend might be a “perfect fit” for the company and position she would be interested in but the pressure she would have at the workplace by struggling to stay “perfect” could create a lot of damage in time. The word “perfect” might sound like a normal word in my vocabulary, but not in my friend’s. Most of us are aware that the unhealthy side of perfectionism is real.

When a company wants an employee to go beyond average all the time it can cause stress, anxiety, and possibly even lead to unhealthy behaviors. Such companies could in fact be validating unhealthy routines and that’s what an ED would do, too. Many people (struggling with an ED) say they had lost a sense of “normal” eating. The same can happen with the amount of work having to take over or being assigned. Even when a candidate is not struggling with an eating disorder, such a work environment may become problematic over time. 

When a company suggests that its employees must excel, excel, excel it also implies to control, control, control. The tendency to constantly excel is close to the tendency to be perfect – one of the problems for most individuals with an eating disorder. To always be the one who excels at work might leave the team behind and could make the constantly “excelling” individual end up in isolation. That’s not cool. Actually, it can be rewarding and satisfying to help others excel. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reminds its readers that “eating disorders are illnesses, not choices” and that professional help is the only recommended strategy. The following are some examples of phrases found in job descriptions that circulate online and on company websites that I consider problematic:

EXAMPLES OF PHRASES USED IN JOB DESCRIPTIONS 

Work beyond average all the time:

  • We want you to live and breathe social media
  • Superhero powers necessary
  • You chase information, tirelessly poring over data to draw insights and make connections

Obsessed with perfection and work:

  • We are looking for a proven leader to maniacally focus on augmenting our user base and growing user engagement with…
  • You have a need for accuracy and organization that makes others think you are insane
  • Qualification: Positive, can-do attitude with focus on results
  • You run to—not from—a challenge. You manage projects and deadlines with the grace and precision of a pro
  • This position is the perfect mix of creative project manager, office manager, executive assistant, & sales beast

Validation of aggressive and impulsive behaviors: 

  • If you are an aggressively fun artist with a great eye for design & uber coolness, then you’ve found the right place 
  • …create and execute an aggressive fundraising plan in support of current and new programming
  • Responsibility: Implement aggressive user acquisition campaigns
  • Requirements: Ability to multi-task and meet aggressive deadlines

What to do:

The language used by HR in job descriptions and possibly read by candidates who struggle with an eating disorder may cause difficulties and feeling of discomfort as it suggests that the ones writing the job descriptions are unaware about the consequences of validating unhealthy behaviors in the workplace. I suggest that those who compose job descriptions promote the good things that the company has to offer and as a result, they will attract those candidates with the most appropriate qualifications and experience. 

Otherwise, it could have a negative impact not only on a candidate, but on the hiring process as well. Happy employees are the key to success for a company even if it is a short-term gig. Job descriptions, as well as interview sessions, are a mirror of what a company has to offer and are opportunities for companies to find the right candidates. 

Picture this. What’s the first thing you do when getting on a subway? I always take a look around me first to see if there are elderly, children or someone with a disability before I go ahead and aggressively “secure” my seat and selfishly enjoy my ride. Other situations may require checking if a child is around before using “adult” language. For HR, it could also be something as simple as that. Write the job description having in mind that the audience is diverse, has needs and deserves some protection and consideration. It will be beneficial for both sides.

Laura Dumitrescu was a communications intern at NEDA. She has previously worked and studied in Austria, Romania, and Germany. Laura earned her Master in Communication Arts at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) in 2016 with concentration on Marketing, Film & TV Production, and Graphic Design. She has a growing interest to work in educational and culturally-diverse environments and at the same time, explore new fields because such intersections stimulate her creativity and keep her curious and eager to learn. As an athlete and a person with friends who struggled with eating disorders, she wants to help raise awareness about eating disorders and mental health.