Business leaders should take a page from the sports mental health playbook
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Historically, we have always admired professional athletes for their physical strength without necessarily considering the mental toughness it takes to compete at the highest level. But last year, Naomi Osaka made us take notice when she pulled out of the French Open to take care of her mental health. Shortly after, gymnast Simone Biles voluntarily sat out several events at the Tokyo Olympics, sparking a global discussion about mental health and performance – a discussion equally relevant to the business world as it is to sport.
Following Naomi and Simone’s brave vulnerability, more athletes have spoken out about their own personal struggles, using their platform and influence to bring attention to this important topic and, in some cases, breaking away from the game to support their Mental Health. . While there have been a few examples of CEOs publicly disconnecting from their jobs for similar reasons, sports pros surpass us, perhaps unsurprisingly, with tennis player Ashleigh Barty, surfer Gabriel Medina and racing driver Lewis Hamilton, all citing mental health as reasons for stepping back, just in the past few months.
As a former Division 1 college athlete, I can confirm that the dynamics in sports that can trigger mental health issues are in some ways relatively similar to the pressures in business. Unrealistic expectations of perfection, public pressure to succeed, continuous focus on reaching the next milestone, and the assumption that you can always outperform your competition are just some of the daily stressors that any ambitious leader faces. is confronted. Coupled with pandemic-induced stressors that have altered workplace wellness expectations, leaders are not only responsible for delivering business results, but also for supporting the mental health of their internal teams while presenting a positive example to their employees.
The pervasive narrative, in both sport and business, is that the most successful leaders demonstrate strength, power and an inscrutable mental resilience. This stereotype is not only unrealistic, it is inauthentic and quite frankly dangerous. Everyone is susceptible to stress, and after two years of battling a global pandemic, it’s more common than ever. In fact, the Worth Health Organization reports that the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25% in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, and based on our own study, we found that almost half (47%) said they felt more stress and anxiety during Covid-19 than at any other time in their lives.
We all have mental health, just like we all have physical health, and everyone’s mental health varies depending on what’s going on in their life. Some may be struggling with a clinical diagnosis like anxiety, depression or OCD, but everyone can be affected by stressful times associated with major life events, job changes or relationship troubles. , not to mention an unprecedented global health crisis and the threat of global war. It’s all part of the mental health spectrum, and if we’re going to make progress in dispelling the stigma, we as business leaders need to be championing conversations on every point of that spectrum.
Lead with vulnerability
Despite the rise in mental health issues, stigma persists when it comes to discussing it at work. Our study with Forrester found that most managers (63%) and more than half (57%) of employees felt affected by the past few years, but had to cut it out of their work lives.
The only way to fight stigma is to allow open conversations about mental wellbeing at work, but it has to start at the top. More CEOs should start to recognize the need to take care of their own mental health, whether that means taking time off, scheduling visible therapy appointments, avoiding working after hours, or simply to recognize the support they need. I’ve made a habit of sharing my feelings about company-wide burnout and passing on any tactics that help me in the moment – right now it’s working, but just like our changes in When it comes to mental health, our coping methods change over time.
In order to truly encourage employees to be open about their mental health at work, we need to lead by example and create a culture of psychological safety where vulnerable conversations are normalized. In addition to sharing our own personal struggles as leaders, we need to check in with our teams. Every company has employees who are constantly working hard to get the job done, but just like star athletes, these team members need rest. Leaders should celebrate team wins by encouraging self-care and time off to recharge before returning to work.
No one would ask an athlete to compete if they have a sprained ankle, a broken wrist, or any other physical ailment. And even if the depression and anxiety aren’t visible, the impacts can be just as debilitating as a physical injury. Athletes like Osaka have led by example, demonstrating how the decline in mental health care is a sign of strength rather than weakness. Their vulnerability has opened up conversations about this traditionally taboo subject, which is particularly important for young athletes facing the pressures of competition during their formative years.
Like so many others, I grew up admiring professional athletes. I put them on a pedestal and considered them heroes, but they are still humans, even if they are exceptional. I still admire them, but not just for their physical prowess. I admire the strength it takes to be vulnerable when it comes to mental health, and it’s time for business leaders to follow suit and learn from the elite athlete playbook.