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Tennis Star’s Mental Break from Job Spotlights Growing HR Issue

Global tennis phenom Naomi Osaka shocked the world when she stepped away from the French Open for a mental health break, but the highly publicized move has shined a spotlight on an increasingly important issue in the workplace.

mental health 2019924 640Competing in front of millions is not the traditional workplace, but it’s essentially how Osaka makes a living. It is also unusual that Osaka publicly came out about an issue most workers are likely to keep private and not discuss in the workplace or with their human resources manager. Osaka, saying speaking with the media causes her anxiety, skipped out on a mandatory press conference. She was fined and she eventually withdrew from the French Open tournament.  

“Workplaces do tend to struggle with thinking about how to accommodate people with mental health conditions,” Peter Smith, a senior scientist at the Institute for Work & Health in Toronto, tells Marketplace. “And I think the advice is you need to involve them in the process.”

One important step for employers and HR is to let employees know it is OK to be forthright about mental health concerns, Smith said. Having someone with the mega-star power of the 23-year-old Osaka voicing those concerns could prompt workers to talk about their own struggles, he added.

Leading up to her May 31 decision to bow out of the tournament, Osaka acknowledged on Twitter that she has “suffered long bouts of depression” since 2018, ABC News reports.

“I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my wellbeing is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris,” Osaka wrote. “I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantly I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly.”

Kelly Greenwood of Mind Share Partners reflected on her own mental health struggles at work as she watched Osaka publicly address her depression. “I have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) which twice in my life has led to debilitating depression, including having to take a leave of absence from work,” Greenwood said. “As a high performer who had always been in competitive schools and workplaces, I was terrified of professional repercussions because I had worked so hard to create this career.”

 Greenwood’s experience with depression led her to start Mind Share Partners, a non-profit focused on helping employees and employers better deal with mental health in the workplace. A 2019 survey by her group found that people from Osaka’s generation took mental health seriously. That survey revealed that 50% of Gen Y and 75% of Gen Z had left their jobs voluntarily and involuntarily due to mental health. That compares with 34% of overall survey respondents.

“With the younger generations there’s both a higher awareness of mental health challenges and a higher expectation of workplace’s role in that and what a mentally healthy culture looks like,” Greenwood said. “As we saw with Naomi Osaka, people are going to walk away if that’s not supported and companies are going to lose some of their talent, and that’s increasingly pushing change in a really positive way and faster than it would have happened otherwise.”

It still may take time before paid leave for mental health is as accepted as time off for physical injuries, The Washington Post reports. Natalie Dattilo, a clinical health psychologist with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said workers who take mental health days often “feel really guilty about it.”

“They’ll worry all day about having taken their mental health day and basically undermine their chance to refresh themselves and actually take the time that they need,” Dattilo said.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in March 2020 that 22% of civilian workers in private industry and governmental agencies had no access to paid sick leave. The data also suggest that even for Americans with paid sick leave, many won’t take the time off. “Companies have to do a better job of letting their staff know if you’re not abusing your time off and you have the time, definitely use it. That’s what it’s there for,” said Sean Baker, a licensed clinical professional counselor based in Maryland and a partner of the Black Mental Health Alliance. “It has to be normalized that it’s okay to take time for yourself.”

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