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Posted 03 Jun 2021

Naomi Osaka Gives A Lesson In Setting Boundaries And Confronting Mental Health At Work

This week we have seen a media storm around world number two tennis champion Naomi Osaka and her decision not to do press interviews during the French Open due to poor mental health. In a world that is constantly bombarding us with messages of “be kind” and “end the stigma” we have once again seen how viciously the press and public can turn on someone, notably a woman of color, for speaking out about their struggles and asserting a boundary.

I have been glad to see however that there have also been strong messages of solidarity and a conversation opening up about managing anxiety in times of pressure. Let’s not squander the opportunity that Osaka has provided us with here, instead let’s lean into this tricky subject and take some lessons from it about the way we view mental health, and how we can do a better job of creating context appropriate accommodations.

Acknowledging That Mental Is Medical

I should begin by saying that anxiety can be a disabling condition that makes simple tasks seem impossible and has physical, biological consequences such as headaches, nausea, difficulty breathing and stomach ache. The mind does not exist separately to the body, they are one and the same system. Long term stress and being in a constant fight, flight or freeze state can take a serious toll on a person’s health and absolutely needs to be given the same validity by an employer as when someone has broken their arm or twisted an ankle. Physical ill health equally takes its toll on our emotions.

If someone is struggling with mental health it is reasonable to need to take time off, it is also reasonable to want to adjust their role or ask for some flexibility while they get back to good health. This is true whether you work part time as a cashier or if you are the CEO of a large company, and everything in between. Working around someone’s ill health looks different depending on their role, but in many cases it is actually better to offer some flexibility rather than have them absent completely.

In Osaka’s case many have been quick to say “she knew what was required when she decided to become a pro” but how true is this really? Could she possibly have known that her mental health problems would become serious and be triggered by interactions with the press? Could she have known the tense climate that would exist at this point around race and gender politics? How much would she have understood as a young woman about press ethics, or the duty of care of the tennis world to its athletes? For me this seems sadly reminiscent of the way that companies stuck in the corporate commando era end up chasing away talent simply because they cannot accept that some people require a little flexibility to thrive.

A Biased Concept Of Unfair Advantage

When discussing disability accommodations in the workplace there is often a misplaced belief that fairness is when everyone works in the exact same conditions. This completely avoids the fact that not everyone is starting from the same place or dealing with the same issues. We don’t expect wheelchair users to use the stairs, we accept that Deaf employees need different technology to communicate. If an employee was recovering from surgery we would most likely think it acceptable if they needed to miss a meeting here or there. But when it is mental health surprisingly few people are able to apply the same concept. This was displayed for all to see when the heads of the four grand slam tournaments released a statement that said:

“We want to underline that rules are in place to ensure all players are treated exactly the same, no matter their stature, beliefs or achievement,” the statement read. “As a sport there is nothing more important than ensuring no player has an unfair advantage over another, which unfortunately is the case in this situation if one player refuses to dedicate time to participate in media commitments while the others all honour their commitments.”

The powers that be in the tennis world who believe skipping press conferences would give Osaka an unfair advantage over her peers have failed to consider that making her attend them in light of her anxiety could actually be considered an imposed disadvantage. The time that she gets back may in fact simply be used to bring her mental state and focus to a similar place as her opponents who are not dealing with anxiety. They have chosen instead to focus on her “stature” and “achievement” which subtly suggests that her entitlement as a highly ranked player is the reason for her request rather than her mental health, this hits again upon a common problem where people who are brave enough to admit their struggles aren’t believed, especially when they appear to be otherwise successful and capable. Campaigns about ending stigma will do nothing to change the workplace if people are not believed and their boundaries are not respected.

Surely there is a compromise that can be reached here. For example, could Osaka be allowed to appoint a press representative until she is feeling better? Could press questions be appropriately vetted and length of time be reduced? Could the entire format of the post-game press conference be changed for all players to something that is less overwhelming? Surely in the time of social media we could think of something new, something better, something that worked for everyone? Professional athletes already give so much of themselves, how reasonable is it that we require their media presence as well? An article in the Guardian this week even suggested that the press outrage is partly because they are being made obsolete in the internet age and are fighting to remain relevant. An interesting perspective I thought.

Setting Boundaries Is Unavoidable

Osaka has shown us what it looks like to set a boundary and stand firm even when it affects your career. Due to her being a sporting figure and also a biracial woman she has received immense backlash and weathering this storm must be taking an additional toll on her. In an ideal world, setting a professional boundary can be done in collaboration with everyone simply seeking a positive outcome, but it rarely happens without any friction at all. Sometimes others simply aren’t willing to come to the table with an open mind. For disabled people, neurominorities and those with chronic illness and mental health difficulties setting boundaries is simply essential to our success. If we wait in the hopes of avoiding friction we risk our own burnout.

Observe the elegant sportsmanship and solidarity of her top athlete colleagues, who have have been quick to support her. Lewis Hamilton summed it up when he said “As athletes, we are pushing ourselves to the limit, we are on the edge, and we’re only human beings.” Her sponsors Nike, Nissan, Mastercard and others have publicly supported her.

This is what a supportive environment for mental health looks like. Critically, she is more likely to recover and come back to her main job, playing top flight, inspirational tennis, because of this support and that’s the lesson for employers. She will likely come out of this still beloved by a loyal fan base and with a line of new sponsors who are increasingly attracted to the brand she is creating for herself rather than her appearances at press conferences. Employers don’t have to choose between supportive actions and job performance, they are one and the same thing, you just have to bear in mind the long term, not knee jerk reactions.

For those dealing with their own mental health battles, I leave you with some wise words from Akua Opong, a mental health champion at London Stock Exchange Group: 

“Mental health issues are tough and can start out of nowhere. Reach out for help. Set boundaries and seek to collaborate with your employer on the solution. Your mental wellbeing is your top priority and they should understand that. Solutions need to be sustainable.”

Thank you to Helen Doyle for her essential contribution to this article.