For years we struggled to talk about mental health. And then the major sporting events returned. The tennis grand slams, Euro 2020 and the Olympics are events that entertain and stress us, mere mortals. So, just imagine how the professional athletes, sportsmen and sportswomen feel as they compete. Years of training and preparation condensed into one performance that can be over in just a few seconds.
And, of course, this year is different from all others. In addition to the normal levels of stress, we have the Covid 19 effect. The protocols, the isolation from family members for long periods, the anxiety of a potential positive test. No wonder mental health is in the news.
The first to hit the headlines was tennis player Naomi Osaka at the French Open. Initially, it was a public withdrawal of participation in media duties. Following condemnation from the tennis authorities, Osaka quit the tournament ‘to protect her mental health’. There was a mixed reaction from around the globe, some supportive, some not.
And then onto the Olympics and the very public episode involving Simone Biles the US gymnast and star of the sport. She cited the unbelievable pressure caused by the expectations of success for her mental health struggles.
Another example is the UK gold medal swimmer Adam Peaty, who announced he is taking a month break from swimming. This has attracted several negative responses with Peaty saying “Reading some of the comments in response to this is why we have such a stigma around mental wellbeing in sport. It isn’t a normal job. There is a huge amount of pressure. Money does not buy happiness. I’m taking a break because I’ve been going extremely hard for as long as I can remember. I’ve averaged two weeks off a year for the last seven years.”
Looking after the mental wellbeing of staff
All of those mentioned by name above is successful, top-level athletes, superstars of their particular sport. To get to that position, they have shown incredible mental strength and fortitude. They are, undoubtedly, mentally strong. And they have probably been assisted by sports psychologists.
So, how does this relate to our employees and staff? There are several parallels. First, we are all human. Things happen in our personal lives that are not directly related to our job. Ben Stokes, the England cricketer, recently lost a close family member and is now taking time away from the sport to prioritise his mental wellbeing. Personal tragedies happen to us all, it cannot be avoided.
Secondly, when someone is performing an everyday role say, in a finance team, they will have goals and aspirations of their own. They may not be as public as the Olympics, but every month-end is a major event to them personally, a chance to show their skills and what they are capable of. This may mean just as much to them as any gold medal with similar stress levels.
We must recognise that the mental wellbeing of staff is a primary objective for every organisation. You cannot wait for the employee to initiate the conversation, by then it may be too late. You need to find ways to understand and address mental wellbeing, to help your team through difficult times.
Finally, let’s put this into perspective and ask an awkward question. If Adam Peaty had announced that he was taking time off swimming due to a muscle injury, would he have received any negative comments? I suspect not. Until mental wellbeing and physical wellbeing are accepted as equally important, unfortunately, the stigma will remain. It is up to everyone to do our bit to change this.