Mental Health: In Tennis and in the Workplace

Reflections on Naomi Osaka’s exit from the French Open, plus action items for employers as employees return to work

Last week, Naomi Osaka announced that she would not be participating in post-match news conferences, as she felt that it would have a negative impact on her mental health:

A few days – and a $15,000 fine! – later, Osaka announced that she would be withdrawing herself from the French Open altogether, making more specific mention of her struggle with anxiety and depression:

Osaka’s announcement came at a fortuitous, but noteworthy time – at the close of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Month, during the first holiday where Americans were able to gather and have a somewhat normal celebration, and just before employees begin to return to offices in droves. In standing up for her own well-being, in just 13 sentences, Osaka sent the right messages at the right time.

3 THINGS NAOMI OSAKA DID

First, Osaka shed light on the decades-old issue that is mental health being seen as something separate, different, and subordinate to physical health. Though we know they exist elsewhere, too, Osaka also revealed discriminatory policies and stances on mental health within sports – see this New York Times piece for examples of this in other sectors, and experienced by multiple other players. Just imagine if Osaka would have announced that she was dropping out because she had a sprained ankle. Hardly anyone would have said anything; the news would have gone on as it always does. 

Second, Osaka reminded us that from courts to cubicles, we need to normalize mental health. Osaka sent waves through the sports world, and while that’s great – because her story will make sure people in every industry, at every level of society know that it’s OK when we’re not OK – we have to ask ourselves: How long are we going to be so surprised to hear of someone taking care of their mind in the same way they do their body? In a way that we don’t bat an eye at, let alone write multiple national stories about?

And third, Osaka made clear a connection we sometimes overlook. In saying, “So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences … I wrote privately to the tournament apologizing and saying that I would be more than happy to speak with them after the tournament as the Slams are intense,” Osaka linked performance to mental health. She recognized that if she could avoid the additional stress of doing a press conference, she could possibly play better, thereby reminding us that whether you are an athlete or an individual with a less physically taxing desk job, we all perform better when our mental health is taken care of.

3 THINGS EMPLOYERS CAN DO

Here’s where the workplace part of this post comes in – not a comparison of tennis swings to changing our mindset on mental health, like we did previously with basketball free throw shooting.

Employers all across the country are right now contemplating when they can bring their employees safely back to work, or if they just did, how they can ensure the smoothest and most productive return-to-work transition. And while many are thinking about safeguards for physical health – Should employees still wear masks? Sit six feet apart? Take their temperature when they walk in the door? – there couldn’t be a better time to put policies and programs in place to safeguard employees' mental health.

More than half of today’s employees have grown to love the comfort and convenience of working from home, 65% saying they’d prefer to keep working fully remote post-pandemic if given the choice. Some are even quitting their jobs.

Why? Because after spending months isolated, watching unrest unfold on TV, grieving, and searching for some semblance of normalcy, the majority of Americans have settled into a new normal that they’re not quite ready to have disrupted.

With this in mind, there are a few things employers can do to help the people that power both their business, and their community. The first is one you’ve already heard about – leading by example. By sharing their own stories about their experience with mental health and embracing the practice of asking everyone they encounter those three questions I shared last week, employers can begin to slowly but surely change the culture that surrounds mental health in their workplace.

The second thing employers can do is more rapidly cement that habit into their organization by naming and talking openly about that commitment. Using the three principles I highlighted to create a social movement for mental health – vision and framing, constituency buy-in and a recognition that this is a long-term commitment – employers can multiply the power of their individual efforts by the number of people in the organization.

Employers can really multiply the power of their individual efforts if they give their employees the tools they need to better help themselves and one another. For example, offering employees mental health days so that they feel it’s OK to take such days off if they need them could be exactly the push people need to take care of themselves. Similarly, investing in and connecting them to apps and platforms where they can get one-on-one coaching and support from mental health professionals – ideally professionals that are integrated into a primary care practice the company’s health plan covers – can help them more easily overcome the hurdle that is admitting that they need help, then actually seeking it.

Even in the face of financial punishment, and on one of the largest stages in the world, Osaka stood up for her mental health. But she shouldn’t have had to. No person should have to.

If we band together, we can create a world where everyone truly believes it’s OK to not be OK, with no shame and no consequence.