Why Elite Athletes are Paving the Way for Destigmatizing Corporate Mental Health Care

Simone Biles
Credit: Dylan Martinez - Reuters /

By Mark Debus, MSW, LCSW, Behavioral Health Team Lead, Sedgwick

Last week, gymnastics superstar Simone Biles shocked the world by stepping away from the highly anticipated Olympic all-around event and a few of her individual events she was slated to dominate, in favor of her mental health and safety. World tennis champion Naomi Osaka chose a similar path last month, withdrawing from Wimbledon and declining media interviews, also for her mental health.

Both athletes drew attention, especially as elite female athletes of color, for the brave choices they made in putting as much focus on their mental health as they would with physical injury.

Just as attention grabbing: the backlash each athlete received for her choice to step back, which highlighted the deep gap between physical and mental health standards in our society.

These athletic leaders serve as a fantastic model for the many unspoken, stigmatized struggles people are going through right now on a much smaller stage in our homes and workplaces. Most of us will never experience the level of scrutiny and demand for performance expected from Ms. Biles or Ms. Osaka, but we do experience stressful situations at work where it seems like everything is on the line. Being mentally prepared and ready to handle challenges that come up makes the difference between success and failure, between a major win and a complete tailspin.

As an expert in mental health, I’ve increasingly been asked about how to balance these forces and stay strong under ongoing, unrelenting pressure to perform. My advice: follow in the footsteps of our elite athletes and take it head on. As companies look to return to in-person work, employers and leaders need to help by addressing mental health up front and creating a culture where the workforce feels safe and supported to do so.

Psychological safety starts at the top

With the lines blurring between home life and work life, on top of a global pandemic and rampant sociopolitical upheaval, workers have found it increasingly more difficult to fully compartmentalize their lives. Now, the floodgates are open – workplaces can’t go back to pre-pandemic ways of brushing workers’ personal needs under the rug. It’s important for leaders to be sensitive to what people on their staff are going through, even if that struggle can’t be fully understood, heard, or seen.

Empathy is the single most valuable skill a leader can possess in 2021. That’s because creating a team or company culture that values mental health starts from the top. Put yourself in the shoes of your staff and show sensitivity in situations where workers are struggling, even in personal matters. Strong leaders respect workers’ needs and boundaries, and take their word for it.

Adding structures and benefits, such as different accommodations, workspace flexibility and time off, is an effective way to encourage workers to feel comfortable coming forward and engaging in more open conversation about their needs or struggles.

Communication is key

If you’re planning to go back to the office soon, remember that the first touchpoint with your staff is important for establishing reconnection and positive communication. After so much time with physical distance, everyone on staff will be re-learning their workplace behaviors, cues and norms as they re-enter the office. That change in itself is an added layer of emotional stress.

So, don’t wait for employees to come to leadership to express other mental health concerns – instead, open the lines of communication proactively and come to employees with safe options for expressing stress, anxiety or concern.

No worker left behind

At this stage of the pandemic, much attention is being paid to financial workers who are returning to offices – and those at tech giants who are notably not returning full-time.

However, leaders can’t overlook the many frontline workers deemed “essential” early in the pandemic, who have continued their jobs throughout 2020 or who have been back at their job sites for months now. These cases are even more essential as they’re driving the so-called “great resignation” of workers in service roles across major industries like retail, warehouse/logistics, dining and hospitality.

In some cases, these jobs come with dangerous circumstances like operating heavy machinery or responding to medical crises in the field. A lapse in judgment from a worker experiencing a mental health crisis could result in life-or-death consequences for that worker or one of their colleagues.

In these roles, there are fewer alternatives for workplace flexibility, but there are care options for mental health. It’s up to leaders to acknowledge the stress these workers feel, open up lines of communication and care, and destigmatize mental health care as an option for burnt out workers.

It’s clear the way we work has changed for good – this means the way workers uphold their boundaries and leaders talk about mental health in the workplace also must change for good. Consider your company’s benefits across all workforces. Are workplace wellness and mental health resources well-communicated and readily available? Is your company culture safe and supportive to those undergoing challenges? If not, be prepared to face the impact of the great resignation firsthand.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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