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What Simone Biles Can Teach Us About Prioritizing Mental Health in the Workplace

From Olympic gymnast Simone Biles to tennis player Naomi Osaka, professional athletes have stepped back to focus on their mental health. Their decisions offer some lessons for workplaces, including the importance of having both employees and employers savvy about mental health needs.

While the pandemic helped shine a spotlight on mental health, professional athletes have upped the ante recently with their bold stance on placing their mental health over their sports work. Tennis player Naomi Osaka made headlines when she withdrew from the French Open and Wimbledon earlier this year. And just last week, seven-time Olympic medalist Simone Biles withdrew from several gymnastics events in Tokyo to focus on her mental health, saying she might have been injured if she’d tried to compete in her mental state.

Lisa Lewis, chief human resources officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), said many employees are affected by mental health concerns and examples like this help others recognize the importance of speaking up.

“I was so proud of [Biles] to say, ‘It’s OK not to be OK, and I need to step away from this for my mental health,’” Lewis said. “Mental health is just as important as physical health.”

To that end, employees need to ensure they are taking care of their mental health, particularly now.

“These are challenging times with this pandemic, so it’s not about, ‘Let me just work through it,’ or ‘I don’t want to tell anybody about this. I’ll just do this on my own,’” Lewis said. “Burnout is real, and there can be serious consequences, so if it’s too much, it’s about self-care and stepping away. It’s OK to say, ‘I need a mental health day.’”

Lewis noted that the employees can feel pressure to show up, perform, and “get the job done,” and second guess themselves, wondering if they should just push through the feelings they’re experiencing. Lewis recommends employees listen to their gut, but anyone who is uncertain should also ask for help.

“If someone is not sure what they need to do, we have our health [telephone] line that’s available to help,” she said, noting there are many hotlines available, not just NAMI’s. “You can call and say, ‘This is what I’m experiencing.’”

Employers Can Help

Lewis said getting employees to feel comfortable talking about mental health is crucial. NAMI encourages workplaces to be stigma-free when it comes to mental health. That means being an organization with a culture of openness, acceptance, and understanding about employees’ overall health and well-being.

“Let people know it’s OK to talk about it,” Lewis said. “Some may not feel comfortable, and that’s fine. But if we could be a more stigma-free environment, and it’s comfortable for the employee to go to their supervisor and say ‘I’m going through something right now, and I’m going to require a break,’ that would help tremendously.”

In addition to creating a stigma-free environment, employers should train supervisors, both on recognizing staff in distress and how to interact with employees who seek mental health assistance—whether that’s time off or other accommodations.

“It’s important that supervisors are trained,” Lewis said. “One of the things we’ve done at NAMI is updated our check-ins. It’s not just about, did you meet your deadline, but how are you doing? What can I do to help you do your job better? Dig deeper than just asking, how did it go this week? Did you meet your deadline?”

In addition to the training, Lewis had four other recommendations:

  • Look at the organization’s health benefits to ensure they cover mental health—and in today’s times, ensure telehealth is included for employees who have concerns about face-to-face interactions.
  • Invest in an employee assistance program, which is typically inexpensive and often offers initial mental health services and 24-hour telephone help.
  • Provide webinars and other resources to educate staff.
  • Consider starting some employee resource groups, where staff can get together and talk over concerns. For example, you could start one for working parents that allows them to discuss some of the challenges of being a parent.

“My mantra is the employee is the number-one asset,” Lewis said. “We do what can we do for them.”

To try to lead by example in this area, NAMI is providing its entire staff this week off, so they can rest and take care of their mental health. The organization took a week off together so no one would feel burdened to check in. While Lewis said it may not be practical—financially or businesswise—to provide an extra week of paid time off, even smaller measures acknowledging the importance of self-care can help.

“Whatever an employer can do—even a day off, or half a day off,” Lewis said. “Just to recognize the importance of mental health and well-being for employees.”

How does your association help make mental health a priority? Share in the comments.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Rasheeda Childress

By Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a senior editor at Associations Now. She covers money and business. Email her with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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