Naomi Osaka is currently featured on this month’s cover of TIME magazine in an article entitled ‘It’s OK to Not Be OK.”
The twenty-five year old Japanese-born California resident is one of the superstars of the tennis world. Osaka has been ranked number one by the World Tennis Association, and she is the first Asian player to hold the top ranking in singles. She is a four-time Grand Slam singles champion, the reigning champion at both the US Open and the Australian Open, and was the Associate Press Female Athlete of the Year in 2020.
Osaka is in the news this time not for her on-the-court play, but for her decision to leave the court when she withdrew from the French Open after a controversy pertaining to her mental health.
Last month, Roland Garros officials fined Osaka $15,000 for skipping a news conference after her first-round French Open victory — and threatened her with disqualification from all four Grand Slam tournaments if she continued to avoid the media.
Osaka explained that she experienced anxiety before speaking to the media and revealed that she also suffered bouts of depression. She had privately approached French Open officials prior to the news conference and communicated that she “wanted to skip press conferences at Roland Garros to exercise self-care and preservation of my mental health.” (She has missed only one press conference in her seven years on tour.) That request was denied, which led to a very public dispute that involved Osaka disclosing her mental health issues to defend herself.
Osaka ultimately decided to pull out of the tournament, and in choosing to directly address this in the media is sending a very loud message that taking a stand for mental health is ‘all worth it.’
In her first public statements since the French Open, Osaka shared two critically important lessons she had learned:
Lesson one: you can never please everyone. The world is as divided now as I can remember in my short 23 years. Issues that are so obvious to me at face value, like wearing a mask in a pandemic or kneeling to show support for anti-racism, are ferociously contested. I mean, wow. So, when I said I needed to miss French Open press conferences to take care of myself mentally, I should have been prepared for what unfolded.
Lesson two was perhaps more enriching. It has become apparent to me that literally everyone either suffers from issues related to their mental health or knows someone who does. The number of messages I received from such a vast cross section of people confirms that. I think we can almost universally agree that each of us is a human being and subject to feelings and emotions.
Osaka also proposed a more hopeful vision of dealing with mental health going forward, including a practical suggestion relating to the use sick days when necessary to address a mental health issue:
Perhaps we should give athletes the right to take a mental break from media scrutiny on a rare occasion without being subject to strict sanctions.
In any other line of work, you would be forgiven for taking a personal day here and there, so long as it’s not habitual. You wouldn’t have to divulge your most personal symptoms to your employer; there would likely be HR measures protecting at least some level of privacy…. My No. 1 suggestion would be to allow a small number of “sick days” per year where you are excused from your press commitments without having to disclose your personal reasons. I believe this would bring sport in line with the rest of society.
Osaka has recently become outspoken on other critical social issues, such as racial injustice and police brutality.
Her personal struggles with anxiety, framed by this recent controversy relating to her media appearances at the French Open, gave her the unique opportunity to very publicly address the issue of mental health in the workplace and to make concrete suggestions for change.
Though we have made some recent strides regarding mental health at work, as we had the occasion to discuss in connection with a recent story about NFL QB, Dak Prescott, we have a very long way to go:
“What we need to build – institutionally and brick-by-brick at our places of work – is a culture in which we understand that people get sick and that supports them when they do, a culture that looks at our mental health on equal footing and with no more stigma than our physical health. When we are successful in building that, we will be stronger, better, more authentic, more human, and more productive.”
The fact that one of the transcendent athletes in the world is using her platform and voice to lead this broad conversation about mental health in the workplace, whether you are an athlete, an accountant, or anyone in between, carries with it great power and great potential to lead to real change. It should give each of us the impetus to carry this conversation forward in our own workplaces.
Now, a pretty good rule of thumb with most things is “Don’t read the comments.” But let’s get real. I don’t have that kind of will power, and I frequently partake. And while we are getting real, the fact is that as difficult as it is to look sometimes, unfortunately or perhaps fortunately, the comments can sometimes also provide information about where we are as a society on an issue.
Like all Big Issues, addressing the values, priorities, and expectations of our underlying culture is the most difficult impediment to change. It always serves us well to better understand those values, priorities and expectations.
So what did people say about Naomi Osaka in the comments? Where are we as a society on this issue?
Well….there were many supportive comments. Many mental health advocates applauded Osaka’s words and actions.
But – shocker, I know! – there were also a lot of nasty and negative comments. Here are some of the ones that caught my eye:
“She gets days off when she doesn’t compete. Rest of us work 40-80 hours a week 5-7 days a week and make a tenth of what she does.”
“If athletes want to be treated like normal everyday people (personal days, sick days, etc.) then fine. Make their professions 40 hours a week 52 weeks a year. Oh, and normal salaries, not millions.”
“I think we as a society throw out the word ‘anxiety,’ far too easily these days. I don’t wanna talk to people. I don’t wanna go to a crowded store. I don’t wanna go to a crowded party. We say this because of ‘anxiety.’ Maybe so, but feels like a crutch or people just not wanting to do shit.”
“Maybe the stardom/pressure of being a high level professional athlete and public figure isn’t for her. People walk away from jobs all the time due to stress, anxiety, responsibility and overall strain it causes. How important is her health to her?”
These viewpoints can be summarized as follows:
- I lack empathy for people who are richer and more famous than I am.
- I don’t really understand what anxiety is, or depression, for that matter.
- If you experience depression or anxiety, that means you ‘can’t handle your job’ and should find another less stressful career.
These points should be able to guide where we may want to take the conversation next.
Every single one of us – no matter what our career – deserves and should be advocating for and embracing what Osaka is advocating in the workplace. Depression and anxiety do not discriminate. They are a part of our humanity that traverses class, race, and ethnicity.
One thing is clear: we have a long way to go to educate people about depression and anxiety. Anxiety is not just an excuse for “people not wanting to do stuff.” Depression is not “just being sad.”
“Fixing empathy” and “getting people to really understand mental health issues” are two tall orders.
But personal stories – and more and more people are sharing their stories – can do a lot to move forward in these areas. Many many people are touched by mental health, whether personally or through a family member or friend. The more we all realize that – and the more we give each other license to talk about it with each other – the more successful we will be in advancing understanding and empathy in this area.
In addition, we are not succeeding as a society if we are forcing the best athletes (and employees) in the world to choose between their health and their playing their sport (or doing their job), as Commenter #2 above seems to call for. Does that seem to be striking the right balance to you? Because it seems to me to be a red flag that we’re doing it wrong. We may not agree with the way our society values sports and entertainment over other jobs, but Naomi Osaka is probably one of the five best in the world at what she does. She should be extremely well compensated! What’s more, if we run our tennis workplace in a way that causes the Naomi Osaka’s of the world to choose to not participate, we – as a society – lose.
This point is not limited to athletes. Each of our workplaces should have policies and practices in place that create environments that encourage the best and smartest workers to continue to work there, to be at their best, and to succeed.
The answer shouldn’t be “Looks like this is too stressful for you; find a new job” or “Oooh, sorry. We’re going to need you to suffer in silence here without addressing the underlying problem. Thanks!”
That type of attitude – which may been seen as “tough” or “bottom-line oriented” – leads to attrition, subpar and inefficient work product, poor morale, and even worse mental health conditions. Numerous studies demonstrate that the long-term economic and human costs far outweigh the short-term economic benefits of forcing employees to “just tough it out.”
We can also learn a lot about how to best to move forward by better understanding two powerful sentiments that underlie some of the negative comments above: trust and power.
First, as to trust, there is an unspoken assumption that if we make it easier for workers to take a leave or a “mental health day” or to skip a press conference, as it were, they will take unfair advantage of it. This fear is exacerbated by a lingering belief among some that mental health conditions “aren’t real,” or at least that they are harder to understand or evaluate because they aren’t visible.
It is true that mental health conditions cannot be seen in the same way that physical ailments like a broken leg, diabetes, or cancer can. So dealing with this does require a certain amount of trust between employers and labor. If practice with sick days and other similar policies are any guide, it seems likely that cases of workers lying about their mental health and taking advantage of a more liberal policy will occur rarely. Moreover, these occasions of bad behavior in the margins should be outweighed by far by the benefits of a more trusting and supportive workplace.
Second, these issues are tricky because they implicate who holds the power. In the extreme case of Naomi Osaka, a top athlete and global icon, it is clear to see that she (among the other small group of stars) is the product who people come to see. She is very differently situated, in terms of her power, from a factory worker who works on the assembly line to make widgets, for example. Therefore, despite being a twenty-something year old woman, she holds great power. (Far more power in fact than they do). If she doesn’t like their policy, she can withdraw from their tournament, and that hurts them more than it hurts her.
This may make the officials at Roland Garros uncomfortable, and it may also make certain workers who are less wealthy, and less famous than she is (which is most people!) uncomfortable, or even jealous. But it underscores the importance of creating a supportive environment, including for mental health, if we are to attract and retain the top talent to work for us.
In addition, while the type of power held by a star athlete is uncommon, all of us would be far better served to leave behind the battle of who has the power to force the other to do something altogether, and to work together to craft a rational and supportive mental health policy for our workplaces.
Naomi Osaka has served a starting point for that conversation. We should return service.
This post is republished on Medium.
Photo Credit: iStock