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Business Leaders Should Take a Page From Sports' Mental Health Playbook

CEO Alyson Watson discusses the lessons business leaders can learn from the long list of athletes who've been speaking out about caring for their mental health.

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Historically, we've always admired professional athletes for their physical strength without necessarily taking into account the mental strength it requires to compete at the highest levels. But last year, Naomi Osaka forced us to take notice when she withdrew from the French Open to care for her mental health. Not long after, gymnast Simone Biles voluntarily sat out several events at the Tokyo Olympics, sparking a global discussion about mental health and performance — a discussion just as relevant for the business world as it is for sports.

Following the courageous vulnerability of Naomi and Simone, more athletes have been speaking out about their own personal struggles, using their platform and influence to draw attention to this important topic, and in some cases, separating themselves from the game in support of their mental health. While there have been a few examples of CEOs publicly disconnecting from work for similar reasons, the pros in sports are, perhaps unsurprisingly, lapping us, with tennis' Ashleigh Barty, surfer Gabriel Medina and race car driver Lewis Hamilton, all citing mental health as reasons to step back, just within the last few months.

Strength stereotype

As a former Division 1 college athlete, I can confirm the dynamics in sports that can trigger mental health issues are in some ways relatively similar to the pressures in business. Unrealistic expectations for perfection, public pressure to succeed, continued focus to reach that next milestone and the assumption that you can always outwork competitors, are just some of the daily stressors that any ambitious leader faces. Coupled with pandemic-induced stressors that have shifted expectations around workplace wellbeing, leaders are not only responsible for delivering business results, but also for supporting the mental health of their internal teams whilst presenting a positive example for their employees.

The pervasive narrative, for both sports and business, is that the most successful leaders exhibit strength, power and impenetrable mental resilience. This stereotype is not only unrealistic, it's inauthentic and quite frankly dangerous. Everyone is susceptible to stress, and after two years of dealing with a global pandemic, it's more common than ever. In fact, the Worth Health Organization reports that global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25% in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, and from our own study, we found almost half (47%) said they felt more stress and anxiety during Covid-19 than at any other time in their life.

We all have mental health just like we all have physical health, and each person's mental health ebbs and flows depending on what's going on in their lives. Some may struggle with a clinical diagnosis like anxiety, depression or OCD, but everyone can relate to periods of stress associated with major life events, job changes or relationship troubles, not to mention an unprecedented global health crisis and the threat of world war. This is all part of the spectrum of mental health, and if we're to make any progress at dispelling stigma, we as business leaders need to be champions for conversations about every point on that spectrum.

Leading with vulnerability

Despite the increase of mental health issues, stigma persists when it comes to discussing it at work. Our research with Forrester found most managers (63%) and more than half (57%) of employees felt affected by the last few years, but had to leave it out of their work life.

The only way to fight stigma is by enabling open conversations about mental wellness in the workplace, but that needs to start at the top. More CEOs should begin to acknowledge the need to care for their own mental health, whether that's taking time off, scheduling visible therapy appointments, avoiding work after-hours or simply acknowledging the support they need. I've made a habit of sharing my feelings about burnout company-wide and passing along whatever tactic is helping me in the moment — right now, it's running, but just like our shifts in mental health, our coping methods evolve over time.

In order to genuinely 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 consistently working hard to get the job done, but just like star athletes, these team members need to rest. Leaders should celebrate team wins by encouraging self-care and time off to rejuvenate before getting back to work.

Nobody would ask an athlete to compete if they were suffering a sprained ankle, broken wrist or any other physical ailment. And even though 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 stepping back to care for mental health is a sign of strength rather than weakness. Their vulnerability has opened up conversations about this traditionally taboo topic, which is particularly important for young athletes dealing with 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 thought of them as heroes, but they're still humans, albeit exceptional ones. I still admire them, but not just for their physical prowess. I admire the strength it takes to be vulnerable about mental health, and it's time for business leaders to follow suit and take a page from the playbook of elite athletes.

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