How athletes are shifting the narrative around mental health at work
In an act of bravery and vulnerability in May 2021, tennis superstar Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, citing concerns for her mental health. Popular and social media quickly ignited, with Osaka facing both global admiration and admonishment. Other prominent athletes, such as Serena Williams, Usain Bolt, and mental health advocate Michael Phelps, quickly voiced their support. Not long after, gymnast Simone Biles voluntarily sat out several events at the Tokyo Olympics, sparking a global discussion about mental health in sports.
These instances of high-profile athletes prioritizing their mental health, along with organized efforts from the sports industry, have triggered an important shift in the narrative of mental health in sports. They’ve increased awareness of the numerous career dynamics that pose mental health risks to athletes: unsustainable expectations for perfection and constant improvement, enormous public pressure to win, pervasive demand to outwork or outlast an opponent, and relatively short career spans that can end in the blink of an eye due to injury.
There is much that company leaders can learn from the momentum of the highly publicized world of sports. Here are four strategies for leaders seeking to support their employees’ mental health.
Check-in with your senior leaders.
One clear takeaway from the mental health in sports movement is that a person’s objective success in a particular field does not imply mental health success. Not only that, but being thrust into the leadership spotlight can actually increase pressure, scrutiny, feelings of isolation, and pressure to hold everything together for others during challenging times. In the world of management, we need to dissociate objective performance from mental health and ask even the most successful leaders, “How are you?” Senior leaders might, for example, be offered executive coaches to give them an outlet and regular mental health check-ins. Another strategy is to have regular, quick check-ins at the beginning of meetings, where each participant (including senior leaders) shares how they’re feeling. This ritual provides a space where everyone’s voice is heard, drives both self and collective awareness, and helps surface warning signs of mental health issues.
The dominant culture in both sports and management has historically been one of strength, power, and invulnerability. Indeed, the original motto of the IOC was “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” which could reinforce a stigma or trigger shame in disclosing vulnerability or “weakness.” The old notion of building mental toughness by yelling at and shaming people who make mistakes has now largely been turned on its head. Sports psychologists have long understood that coaches who bully don’t prepare athletes to be peak performers, but rather make them afraid to take risks and make mistakes, create performance problems, and drive them to quit. Likewise, abusive leadership in the workplace can lead to anxiety, emotional exhaustion, insomnia, alcoholism, and depression. Setting a good example is no simple feat. It means leaders need to develop self-awareness (am I OK?), embrace their own vulnerability (maybe I’m actually not OK), and strengthen their sense of empathy and awareness of others (are they OK?). Finally, they need to have the courage and commitment to ask for, offer, and actually receive help.
Monitor and prioritize mental recovery.
In sports, it’s well known that minds and bodies need to recover before athletes can perform at optimal levels. Mental health and physical health are two sides of the same coin. Research journals in the field of sports performance, sports psychology, and sports management address how to measure physical and psychological recovery after phases of ex
treme performance and why it matters. Leaders can encourage their colleagues to celebrate what they do disconnect and recharge and share tips for how and when to take breaks after periods of intense work (e.g., the Pomodoro Technique, “breathe” reminders, and shared sports apps for social motivation). All employees need to learn to identify what stressors may be chronically depleting their own mental (and physical) resources, and develop a personal toolkit of boundaries and strategies that work best for them to help recover from work before they reach the point of exhaustion — and potentially burnout, or worse.
Foster a support network.
The catchphrase, “Alone we are small, but together, we become giants,” originates from the #StrongerTogether campaign launched by the IOC, along with their historic motto change to “Faster, Higher, Stronger — Together.” In addition to highlighting the importance of unity and solidarity in sport, this shift also points toward the power of teams and a support network. One of the accelerators of mental health symptoms and disorders is social isolation. Leaders of all organizations have the power to ensure everyone feels physically and mentally safe at work. The learnings from the world of sports are clear: Stop making assumptions about people’s well-being — instead, just ask. Hiding your vulnerabilities can reinforce the stigma around mental health. Recovery is as important for mental health as it is for physical health. And fostering support networks can unlock a virtuous cycle of employee and organizational growth.
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