Addressing Mental Health in the Workplace
Tennis player Naomi Osaka’s refusal to participate in press conferences at the French Open to save her mental health touched off an important issue for workers. An expert offers tips for employees and managers when mental health issues arise that require flexibility from the workplace.
Last month, No.2-ranked women’s tennis player Naomi Osaka drew much attention when she said she wouldn’t participate in press conferences at the French Open because they were bad for her mental health. After organizers fined her and threatened to default her from the event, she withdrew from the tournament to attend to her mental health. Last week, she also withdrew from Wimbledon to take “personal time with friends and family.”
Although Osaka’s situation happened in the professional sports world, it has broader implications for mental health in the workplace. I turned to an expert to find out what the average person should do if, like Osaka, they have mental health concerns that could be affecting their work. Darcy Gruttadaro, J.D., director of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health, offered advice for both employees and employers.
How to Make a Request
If you are dealing with mental health issues, Gruttadaro notes that the best start isn’t citing case law on disability, but just talking to your supervisor. “You have legal protections, but you may have the kind of relationship with your manager where you can start a conversation,” she said. “Say: I’m not feeling up to it. I’ve been struggling a bit with stress, strain, depression, anxiety, whatever it is.”
In that situation, staff might ask for a one-time accommodation, waiver, or time off to deal with their mental health. Managers should respond with kindness.
“The first thing you want to do is be empathetic, compassionate, and kind—and you want to be a very good listener,” she said. “Many of us want to jump in with a solution. But it’s best to just be the listener, hear the person out for what they want to share, thank them from sharing, and let them know that the organization has resources to support them through the process of feeling better.”
Getting time off to care for your mental health is typically as simple as the supervisor granting the time, either from accrued leave or under the Family Medical Leave Act. However, if a person wants a long-term accommodation, a few core elements are considered.
“If you are seeking an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act or Section 504, you have to qualify,” Gruttadaro said. “It’s not as simple as, ‘I don’t want to do this, so I’m asking for this as an accommodation.’ The law includes certain parameters that you have to meet.”
Additionally, the accommodation must be reasonable and cannot be an undue burden on the employer, and the employee also must be able to perform the essential functions of the job.
“If one of the essential functions of your job is to work different shifts and you decide, ‘No, I just want to work just 9 to 5,’ and it wouldn’t be fair to others if they had to take shifts but you didn’t, then we really have to ask the question: Is this fair, and can you perform the essential job functions?” Gruttadaro said.
The Osaka situation drew such initial debate because some considered press conferences essential to the job and felt it would be unfair to other players if Osaka skipped them. The good news is the attention has made more people take a hard look at what is essential for tennis players. Likewise, Gruttadaro says it’s important for organizations to have a good understanding of the essential elements of each job on staff.
While managers should be the point of contact for initial requests, specifics should be handled by the experts. “Manager, if someone comes to you and says, ‘I am experiencing anxiety; I need a new desk location,’ or ‘I need a quieter spot,’ that goes to human resources,” Gruttadaro said. “HR understands the parameters of the ADA and Section 504, and they should work through with the employee their ability to perform the essential functions of the job and whether an accommodation is reasonable.”
Importance of Self-Care
While the goal is to find situations that work for staff and employers, when the essential functions of the job are at odds with your mental health, it leaves tough choices. “The essential functions of the job may require you to do things that are not easy for you to do, given your mental health condition,” Gruttadaro said. “It is then up to the individual to decide: is this the right job for me?”
Gruttadaro noted that mental health care has been brought to the forefront since the pandemic, and self-care is now seen as important. “That was a perfect example of self-care,” she said. “[Osaka] knew it was too much for her at that moment in time, and she spoke up for herself, and that’s a really powerful message.”
Gruttadaro hopes the level of support Osaka received after withdrawing from the French Open extends to workplaces in general. “We had this broad support for her, and that’s what we should have in every workplace,” Gruttadaro said. “We should have broad support for the idea that if you have a diagnosed condition—whether it’s diabetes, cancer, or mental health—you may need extra support and for the workplace to be flexible.”
Tennis star Naomi Osaka kicked off a discussion on mental health in the workplace at the French Open. (Peter Menzel/Flickr)