What if you outperformed your co-workers, and you received an award for best performance among your peers? Yet, outsiders booed you for outshining everyone else to the point you had to cover your face in humiliation. Then the corporate higher-ups, after being informed that you suffer from mental health challenges, demanded you face more agitation from people who pelt you with questions that create additional anxiety and depression. And when you put your foot down, the company fined you $15,000 for refusing to further traumatize yourself. Clearly, the continued abuse would cause you to leave that job, right?
Essentially that’s what happened to tennis champ Naomi Osaka, the highest paid female athlete ever. In 2018 when she defeated Serena Williams, the crowd booed her, and she was forced to cover her head in humiliation. At the 2021 French Open, despite Osaka’s bouts with depression and anxiety, Ground Slam Tournaments (GST) threatened to disqualify her for refusing to speak to the media. After she refused to subject herself to the traumatic media onslaught, the GST fined her $15,000, and Osaka pulled out of the tournament, citing mental health issues.
The backlash was swift and fierce. To add insult to injury, some in the media vilified her for withdrawing from the French Open, calling her spoiled, weak and selfish. These reactions show that workplace mental health continues to be a divisive topic that doesn’t get the same billing as a broken arm or sprained ankle. Osaka’s treatment isn’t just about the mental health of sports figures. It’s about the expectations of all workplaces—many of which continue to make punitive demands on employees that run against the grain of their mental and emotional well-being.
The outdated, punitive trend of self-sacrifice to sustain your job is receiving a backlash of its own. No longer are employees willing to turn off the lights in their offices and cower behind a potted plant to protect themselves from harmful corporate demands. No longer are they willing to subject themselves to sexual, physical or mental abuse or trauma. And no longer are they willing to pay the price of burnout as a “normal” side effect of hard work.
The tennis court is Osaka’s workplace. After openly sharing her vulnerability which the powers-that-be seemed to dismiss, she did a brave thing. She left a job she deeply loved instead of sacrificing her mental health. And she’s not alone. One in five people will be affected by mental illness over the course of a lifetime. Here’s what all of us can learn from Osaka about advocating for our own mental health in the workplace:
- Practice fierce self-care. Make mental wellness a top priority and take steps to protect it on a daily basis, even if your company doesn’t. Throw people-pleasing out the window and please your mental health first. What Osaka did wasn’t selfish; it was self-care. She’s the only person on the planet who knows what actions to take to protect and sustain her emotional well-being.
- Maintain control over your career. Speak up if you feel mistreated at work, and don’t make career decisions that compromise your mental health. Advocate for your wellness, no matter the pressure from your employer, and don’t back down when your mental health is on the line.
- Set healthy boundaries. Follow Osaka’s example of being willing to say no when companies make unreasonable demands that run against the grain of your mental health.
- Avoid self-shaming. You are not weak or selfish when you refuse to subject yourself to unhealthy workplace demands. You’re a normal person responding to an abnormal situation. Some employees are born with pit-bull determination, while others are more vulnerable to the slings and arrows of workplace pressures.
- Maintain a close, strong support system. Enlist family, friends and co-workers you can lean on in times of turmoil. Tennis great Serena Williams and Olympic gold medalist swimmer Michael Phelps came to Osaka’s defense and supported her decision to take care of herself.
- Exhibit a professional attitude. Osaka released a statement expressing the hope that both parties can find solutions to this controversial ordeal in the future.
- Consider leaving the job. No one can tell you to quit your job without knowing the intimate details of your work and personal life. It might be worthwhile to consult with HR or a counselor to weigh pros and cons of leaving a job that doesn’t provide meaning and purpose or that requires you to sacrifice your mental health and well-being. Osaka did what she needed to do for herself.
Exemplary Companies Support Workplace Mental Health
It’s not accidental that some companies have higher employee engagement, morale and productivity and lower absenteeism, burnout and turnover. What are they doing that separates them from organizations lagging behind? They make employee mental health and well-being top priority. They’re committed to creating psychological safety and open communication, and they prioritize self-care with the understanding it goes hand-in-hand with job performance. They listen to employees, show empathy and factor worker concerns into their decision making.
Whatever adversity you might face—a toxic work environment, an abusive boss, a co-worker angling for your job—you always have choices, says former U.S. diplomat and workplace resiliency expert Beth Payne (See my piece on how she turned career adversity into career success here). “We’re all human beings, and it’s okay to be vulnerable,” Payne said. “It’s a paradox, but resilient people don’t necessarily possess brute strength. They have resilience skills and tools. They have inner stamina, regardless of their frame, gender or size. They know how to say no. They are able to tell someone, ‘You can’t treat me that way,’ and they’re able to quit a toxic job if necessary.”
Osaka showed her vulnerability by sharing her mental health issues—as did Michael Phelps, who struggled with his own mental health challenges. There’s an irony to her story. By putting her self-care at the top of the list, she’s changing what sports figures are willing to put up with. More importantly, she’s setting an example for what all workers expect from their employers to sustain their performance. Mentally healthy employees are productive employees who ultimately boost the organization’s bottom line. If you want to follow in Osaka’s footsteps, take off your armor but don’t allow yourself to be mistreated by anyone, no matter where you work.
If you or someone you know is having a workplace mental health crisis, contact Mental Health America or call the National Suicide 24 hour Hotline at 800-273-8255.
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