Ever told your boss you need time off because you were having a bad mental health day?
For many, even the thought can seem impossible given the stigma around the subject particularly when there’s no physical ailment to show. Not very many employers would be understanding of one’s mental health challenges compounding any fears an employee has about repercussions.
This includes all kinds of workplaces as is now evident with the French Federation of Tennis, which hosts the French Open. Naomi Osaka, the second-ranked woman in tennis, withdrew from the prestigious tournament earlier this week, citing her battle with depression and anxiety.
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This sudden and surprising turn of events from a 23-year-old woman of colour has shaken the sporting world. This is the first time a major tennis athlete has withdrawn from a competition without having a serious physical injury. Osaka also specified that media interactions after matches triggered her mental health challenges. She went on to skip these, for which she was fined. Some of the reactions to her decision tell us why her move is so significant for everyone, tennis fan or not. From tennis great Rafael Nadal saying media interactions are what make star athletes who they are, to tennis fans showing their disappointment on social media, Osaka has been met with disheartening comments.
The gender disparity
The reactions are not new and the incident has laid bare our approach, or the lack of one, to mental health and work. The basic conversation about mental health, where we talk about the need to prioritize it, how to recognize it and respect it, has only just begun in the past few years. And while some of it has trickled down to the workplace, it is still something we all struggle to juggle, especially in high-pressure and inflexible work environments.
Simply put, if Osaka was replaced with a white male in this situation, the reactions would be wildly different.
What makes the reactions even more unsurprising is the fact that Osaka is a woman of colour. Historically, women have been discriminated against in the workplace, and even today, most women stand in a disadvantageous position when compared to men. They are paid less, they are listened to less, they are given less agency and fewer liberties, and are harassed more often. These discriminations are amplified for a person of colour, as they also encounter racism. Simply put, if Osaka was replaced with a white male in this situation, the reactions would be wildly different and the individual would have been lauded for this decision with commentators, fans and the press terming it as “brave” and “the right decision.”
For many women who juggle with the eternal question of “can women have it all?” taking time off for whatever reason — be it for marriage, maternity, moving, or even just illness — can be a hindrance in their professional life. This blatant sexism and disregard leads to the development of a toxic approach to work and life — one with no balance, one which is more materialistic, one where happiness is equated with productivity.
This attitude pressurizes the human to discount themselves and work in an inhuman fashion, just to get the job done. When this happens to a young person of colour in the limelight, the effects are even more taxing, as they learn this to be the only way to function and experience burnout faster.
The way forward
Despite these harsh realities, Osaka’s move to prioritize her mental health over her job as an athlete still works as a beacon of hope. While there has been backlash, she has also found overwhelming support from fans and tennis GOATs like Serena Williams. People are once again talking about how mental health needs to be given as much importance as physical health and are looking at the effects that stressful work environments can have on one’s well-being.
Support for Osaka also shows that people — fans, athletes, and institutions — are not only acknowledging the impact of being in the high-pressure world of professional sports, but are also accepting that there is no single way of dealing with it. This act of holding space for public figures to deal with situations in their own way, shows that we are now ready to further the conversation around mental health and inclusivity on a much larger scale. And this shows that — despite the backlash from some quarters — while we hold our public figures to a high standard, we are now willing to see them, and each other, as humans.