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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, and the mental wellness app Calm went viral as the organization offered to cover Osaka’s fines. 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.

Conversations about mental health have also proliferated in organizations due to the clear negative impacts of the pandemic on workplace mental health and well-being, and many companies are revising and refocusing their organizational health strategies as a result. For example, leaders at several prominent organizations (including BHP, Clifford Chance, Deloitte, and HSBC) have launched a global collaboration to drive change.

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. For example, Liverpool FC soccer player Andy Robertson admitted he struggled the most with mental health when he had “made it” — when he rose to fame and people stopped asking him, “how are you?” After all, he was a high-earning player in one of the best soccer leagues in the world. What could possibly be wrong?

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. Team psychological safety plays a critical role in ensuring everyone feels comfortable to share without fear of judgement.

Embrace vulnerability.

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.

While statistics show that one in four individuals will confront a diagnosable mental health condition in any given year, research also shows that the stigma surrounding mental health is still pervasive and continues to erect a barrier to seeking help. This stigma can lead people to evade questions about their mental health, drive them to erect a surface-level facade of happiness, and avoid getting to know their colleagues on a personal level. These behaviors can be exhausting and further isolating, and the individual can unfortunately feel — and be perceived as — less authentic by peers and supervisors.

Leaders can normalize conversations around difficult emotions and mental health through leading by example — for instance, by sharing personal stories of vulnerability. Take Virgin Money’s CEO, Jayne-Anne Gadhia, who has been open about her battle with postpartum depression and suicidal thoughts. Leaders can also explicitly encourage their teams to be open about their emotions, particularly during difficult times. Kaspar Schmeichel, a Danish professional soccer player, addressed the mental health of the team shortly after a teammate went into cardiac arrest during a game at the Euro 2020:

…no matter how you twist it, the experience we went through together was very, very rough and very traumatizing…the role of the leaders in the group is to make sure that everybody feels like it’s a safe space, they can be heard and there’s not, like, a wrong feeling…There’s nothing wrong with smiling. There’s nothing wrong with laughing. There’s nothing wrong with crying. It is what it is, and people react in different ways.

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 extreme performance and why it matters. Athletes and their medical teams also use apps to track indicators like sleep, performance data, and biomarker results to monitor their health, prevent injuries, and manage their schedule and training load.

On the other hand, management research and practitioner journals and press spend far less time addressing the need for post-performance and post-stress recovery in the workplace. In fact, the world of management has often glorified insufficient rest or recovery, to the mental health detriment of employees. On top of that, the idea that sleeping less allows us to do more work is not borne out by research. According to neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin, “Sleep is among the most critical factors for peak performance, memory, productivity, immune function, and mood regulation.”

Sleep is a critical element of mental health recovery, but it’s just one part of a whole. People must also be proactive and continually ask themselves: how can I mentally recover from the intensity of the day, the week, or the last 18 months? British hockey player and Olympic gold medalist Helen Richardson-Walsh illustrates the challenge of mental rehabilitation:

There are similarities between physical and mental rehabilitation. But mental illness can be more difficult to recover from. If your body is broken, and if it’s capable of repairing itself it will. I think the mental side can feel harder because it won’t just happen with time. Although time is really helpful, you’ll only recover if you’re doing the right things. You really need to have the right processes in place to be able to get back.

Organizations are catching on, noting the importance of mental recovery. For example, the LEGO Group’s London HQ has private “relaxing caves” for rest and contimplation, and Facebook’s HQ contains a four-acre rooftop garden with a walking trail, capitalizing on research that shows the energizing effect of nature. In the hybrid or virtual world, leaders may also consider online mindfulness or yoga sessions, or give employees specific opportunities to completely disconnect. At On, employees go for runs together during office hours, and LinkedIn recently surprised their workforce with a paid week off to combat burnout.

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. When Helen Richardson-Walsh was struggling with mental health concerns after a career-threatening injury, she started to isolate from her teammates. She ultimately realized it only made things worse. Being able to share her struggle with her team helped considerably:

The support I got from the whole squad was amazing and I think it just goes to show that people are accepting and supportive; otherwise, if they don’t know what’s going on, they can’t help…It helped me, but I think it also helped the team know what was going on inside my head, which in turn helped our relationships.

The virtuous circle that supportive cultures create can lift the pressure and burden team members may carry. As Liverpool FC soccer manager Jurgen Klopp put it: “We all feel, it’s not about me alone to fulfill [the high expectations set for the team], we do it together. So, if I’m not perfect today, the other ones will step up and help.” Likewise, Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney encourages open communication between players and coaches: a culture of “no matter what, it’s okay and we’re here to help.” He also installed a “psychiatrist’s couch” in the middle of one of the team’s rooms and regularly invites players to share their life stories.

In the world of sports, it’s customary — and often considered necessary — to have a support team. This team is crafted to provide specialized performance coaching, as well as emotional, physical, and psychological support for athletes throughout their journeys. Many organizations are similarly moving in the right direction. For example, employee assistance programs with trained professionals, peer-support networks, and targeted employee resource groups are increasingly normalizing social support.

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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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