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How Naomi Osaka Is Shaking Up Our Old Assumptions about Mental Health in the Workplace: It’s Okay Not to Be Okay

Naomi Osaka on the court

In a shocking announcement, tennis superstar Naomi Osaka announced her withdrawal from Roland Garros (known in the US as the French Open) following a win in the first round. This comes after a bitter fallout with tennis officials over her decision to boycott all media activity at the Grand Slam event.

Osaka had announced that she would skip all news conferences, saying that she felt the post-match grillings were akin to “kicking people when they are down” and negatively impacted her mental health.  Osaka has said that she has struggled with anxiety and depression since the US Open in 2018, where she was booed at the finals after defeating Serena Williams.

It was not the first time Osaka felt uncomfortable with press conferences. She says these conferences cause her anxiety, and she felt bullied by the press at times.

It thus seemed natural that Osaka decided to boycott press conferences in a commendable act of self-care for the sake of her mental health. Instead of showing concern, tennis officials threatened to suspend her and fined her $15,000, further exacerbating the situation. While physical injuries and illnesses are considered legitimate reasons for athletes to skip press conferences, citing mental illness as a reason is frowned upon, a sign of personal deficiency and weakness.

Mental Health Stigma in the Workplace

Osaka’s unfortunate experience highlights a far bigger problem:  the lack of attention to mental health issues in the workplace. Many employees struggle with mental illnesses, with 1 in 6.8 people stating they experience mental health problems at the workplace.  In the UK, 12.7% of all sick leave taken can be attributed to mental health conditions.

Unfortunately, many workers fear speaking out about their mental health. In the US, half of the workers surveyed were concerned about discussing mental health issues in the workplace. As professionals, employees are expected to fulfill their roles with due diligence. Citing mental health reasons for being unable to do your work is often dismissed by employers as mere weakness or a lack of willpower. This might lead to the loss of a potential promotion or even being fired due to “poor work performance.”  Young employees, in particular, are expected to bite the bullet and work hard to gather “valuable experience.”

Employers also find it challenging to address mental health issues. Giving accommodations to one worker, such as allowing a remote work arrangement, might be feasible, but accommodating multiple requests can be impractical from a business standpoint. Some companies may not have the financial resources to roll out mental health initiatives for their workers when the business is struggling, particularly in the wake of the COVID- 19 pandemic.

Unaddressed mental health issues contribute to significant declines in productivity, and the resulting cost to businesses and society is high. In the US, the economic burden of major depressive disorder (MDD) is $210.5 billion. Nearly half of the cost is borne by the employer in the form of absenteeism (missing work) and presenteeism (reduced productivity at work).

How to Exercise Self-Care in the Workplace

1. Don’t pretend to be okay

Employees often bottle up their emotions and pretend everything is okay when it is not. It does not help when we think of displaying negative emotions as a sign of weakness. However, bottled-up emotions can have serious consequences.

According to Harvard Medical School Psychologist Dr. Susan David, bottling up our emotions serves to invalidate our feelings which ironically only amplifies them. Instead, Dr. David thinks we should exercise “gentle acceptance,” acknowledging and embracing the difficulties facing the painful emotions we feel. Acceptance is the first step towards positive change.

Don’t be afraid to tell your co-workers or your bosses how you feel. Take the risk and voice your concerns. Then talk with your supervisor to come up with an effective plan to manage the stressors you have identified so you can perform the best at your job. Your supervisor will not think of you as weak but instead will respect you for your courage and openness.

2. Open up to others and seek help

Reach out to your trusted family members and friends and tell them how you feel. Ask them for their advice and accept their help. It gives you a sense of reassurance knowing someone else has got your back. If you continue to feel overwhelmed at work, consider going for counseling or seeing a psychologist. Again, acknowledging when you need help is an incredible display of courage and strength.

3. Have your own personal time

Employees can at times be so engrossed in their work that they neglect their own needs. Lack of sleep, being physically inactive, hardly spending time with your friends and family can compromise your ability to keep up at work. While it’s good to be a diligent worker, do not forget to set time aside for yourself. Set aside a specific chunk of time every week just for yourself. It could be doing something you love, catching up on sleep, or catching up with friends or family. Your life is much more than your work, and how you spend your time should reflect that.

4. Do a schedule sync with your supervisor

Supervisors are often unaware of how employees spend their time. Thus, they may allocate more work until it becomes overwhelming. Consider doing a schedule sync with your supervisor. Draft out a work schedule that you think is reasonable and go over it with your supervisor. This allows your supervisor to prioritize which tasks you should do first and lets your supervisor know your current workload. Your supervisor should be happy as long as the important tasks are completed, while you will be happier with a more manageable workload.

5. Practice self-love

Workplace environments can be harsh. Tempers can flare, and stress levels are high. Yet, you are your greatest supporter. When you do a good job, remember to give yourself a pat on the back. Conversely, when you are called out for poor performance, do not be too hard on yourself. Giving yourself a little love each day goes a long way in making your workplace experience more enjoyable.

Being open about your mental health is not a weakness, but a strength

For Osaka, the tennis court is her workplace. She felt that her mental health was compromised and did not want to aggravate her condition further.  In an industry where athletes strive for excellence and perfection, Osaka was brave enough to open up about her mental health struggles. In showcasing her vulnerability, she has unexpectedly garnered respect from the public for her courage to speak up.

No longer should we avoid discussing mental health in the workplace. Mental health disorders are not a result of feeble-mindedness or personal failings. They are real illnesses that require treatment and support.  Speaking up about your mental health struggles then is hardly a weakness but an act of bravery that you should be commended for doing.



About the Author: Zhi Yong is highly passionate about mental health issues. He has started his own blog vitaMIND, a blog dedicated to building a resilient mind.  He likes writing on topics based on his own experiences.

Image credit: Rob Prange on Flickr

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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2 thoughts on “How Naomi Osaka Is Shaking Up Our Old Assumptions about Mental Health in the Workplace: It’s Okay Not to Be Okay

  1. Karen Nyasha Marasha says:

    The workplace is a product of its society. The world is generally patriarchal, emphasizing on being ‘tough’ and keeping emotions in. Employees are expected to ‘toughen up and do your job this is not a nursery’ which is not only bad for mental health and morale but affects productivity. When society moves away from clinging on to traditional ideas which view mental health problems as a ‘weakness’ associated with femininity, the work environment also change

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