In June, Japanese-born tennis superstar Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open after her first-round victory, citing the need to preserve her mental health. The following month, during the first week of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics
, American gymnast Simone Biles took herself out of several gymnastics events, pointing out the mental and physical challenges of her sport and saying that she needed to protect her own well-being.
Criticism of both women was swift. They had stepped back for mental health reasons and not because of physical injury? A handful of journalists and news commentators called the athletes cowardly, immature and selfish, and mocked them for not being strong enough to handle the pressures of competition.
There was also an outpouring of support from well-known public figures, including retired American swimmer Michael Phelps, tennis greats Serena Williams and Billie Jean King, former US first lady Michelle Obama, NBA basketball player Stephen Curry, actor Will Smith and singer Justin Bieber.
The women’s struggles highlight the importance to sporting excellence of mental fortitude, but they also put the focus on mental health in the workplace and raise the question: if we can take time off work when we have a physical illness, why can’t we do the same when we’re suffering emotionally?
Simone Biles took herself out of several events during the first week of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics
, before returning to win a bronze medal on the balance beam. Photo: Getty Images
Mental health issues have been largely stigmatised in the workplace. Thanks in part to the coronavirus pandemic, employers have begun to take conditions like anxiety and depression seriously. But, according to clinical psychologist Dr Timothy Sharp, chief happiness officer at The Happiness Institute in Sydney, Australia, we still have a long way to go.
“Stigma still exists in some workplaces because of ignorance. Too many people simply don’t understand the realities and the facts surrounding mental health issues. They don’t see mental health as important, so they don’t invest the time or resources into it,” Sharp says.
Hong Kong-based psychologist Dr Adrian Low Eng-ken believes that many people still perceive those with mental health issues to be dangerous, violent or criminal, and therefore unable to function normally or do their job properly. As a result, employees with such issues may avoid discussing their problems with their bosses or colleagues, opting to suffer in silence.
But it’s important for companies to prioritise their employees’ mental health. Sharp says that mental well-being is crucial to staff satisfaction, engagement and, ultimately, productivity and teamwork. Organisations that support employees with mental health issues are more likely to attract and retain the best people and get more out of them.
Few employees take sick leave when we’re experiencing stress or burnout, even in companies that encourage it. Despite symptoms like anxiety, feeling overwhelmed and being unable to focus or make decisions, we soldier on because we believe we can or because we feel it’s expected of us.
Dr Adrian Low Eng-ken is a Hong Kong-based psychologist.
While it can be helpful to persist and try to work through the emotional difficulties, Sharp says that pushing too hard or too far may only exacerbate the problem.
“I’d encourage people to do their best to persevere, but they should also be mindful of any signs that this approach is not making things better. If the situation is worsening, you may want to step back or take a break and reach out to someone and ask for help.”
If you think you might benefit from taking a couple of days or weeks off, you may wonder how to convey this need to your employer without being stigmatised, judged or punished.
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t differentiate between “sick leave” and “mental health leave”. In fact, Sharp believes that enlightened organisations are scrapping such outdated descriptors and simply allowing employees to take a certain number of days off each year to use however they like.
If your company has no such policy in place, Sharp suggests having an honest discussion with your employer. Your doctor will still write you a medical certificate if you need time off to deal with your mental health issues – it’s up to you whether to disclose the reasons for your leave with your boss.
Don’t feel guilty for taking a “sad” day off from work. Instead, see it as taking charge of your health and well-being. How you spend this time is up to you – if catching up on sleep or watching films all day makes you feel better, then these activities aren’t a waste of time.
Low also suggests spending time outdoors in nature, learning something new, connecting with loved ones whom you haven’t spoken to in a while, and taking part in activities that bring you pleasure. Anything that makes you feel happy and relaxed is worthwhile.
Dr Timothy Sharp is the Chief Happiness Officer at The Happiness Institute in Sydney, Australia.
Even “doing nothing” can benefit your mental health, Low adds.
“Intentionally boring ourselves has been shown to help calm our overloaded brain and alleviate stress. Studies have found that boredom can increase creativity, enhance problem-solving abilities, and trigger the pursuit of new goals and the search for novelty. It’s also a good opportunity for self-reflection.”
To protect your mental health when you return to work, Low recommends working sensible hours to avoid burnout, creating clear boundaries between work and home so that you know when to “switch off”, and asking your employer or colleagues for help when you experience difficulties on the job.
He adds that it’s perfectly OK to admit to yourself – and to others – that you’re struggling emotionally, that you feel anxious and afraid, and that you find it difficult to carry on.
As Biles posted on Instagram on July 26, the day before she dropped out of the team finals: “It wasn’t an easy day or my best, but I got through it. I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but … sometimes it’s hard …”
The post has attracted more than 1.6 million likes.