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

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

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

We have always admired professional athletes for their physical strength, but we don’t take into account the mental strength required to compete at the highest level. Last year, Naomi Osaka made us pause to consider her decision to withdraw from the French Open to improve her mental health. Shortly thereafter, Simone Biles, a gymnast, voluntarily sat out several events of the Tokyo Olympics. This sparked a global discussion about mental Health and Performance — an equally relevant discussion for business as for sports.

Following the brave vulnerability of Simone and Naomi, more athletes have spoken out about their personal struggles and used their platform and influence in order to bring attention to the topic. In some cases, they have even taken a break from the sport to support their mental health. Although there have been some instances of CEOs publicly disengaging from work for similar reasons in the past, sports pros are embracing this trend. Ashleigh barty , surfer Gabriel Medina , and race car driver Lewis Hamilton , have all mentioned mental health as reasons to take a step back within the last few weeks.

Strength stereotype

As a former Division I college athlete, I can confirm that the dynamics in sports can cause mental health problems in some ways similar to business pressures. Ambitious leaders face daily stressors such as unrealistic expectations, public pressure to succeed and the expectation that you can always outwork your competitors. 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 prevailing narrative in both business and sports is that the most successful leaders display strength, power, and immeasurable mental resilience. This stereotype is not only untrue, but it’s also dangerous. Stress is something that everyone can experience. This is despite the fact that we have been dealing with a global pandemic for two years. 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. Each person’s mental state varies depending on the circumstances of their lives. While some may struggle with a diagnosis such as anxiety, depression, or OCD, everyone can relate to stress due to major life events, job changes, or relationship problems, as well as the unprecedented global health crisis and threat of 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 rise in mental health issues, there is still stigma around discussing them 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.

Encouraging open conversations about mental health in the workplace is the only way to combat stigma. But that conversation must 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 have a habit of sharing my feelings on burnout with the company and passing on any tactic that is working for me at the time. It’s running right now, but like our mental health shifts, our coping strategies change over time.

Leading by example, create a psychological safety culture where vulnerable conversations can be normalized and encourage employees to talk openly about their mental health at work. In addition to sharing our own personal struggles as leaders, we need to check in with our teams. Employees are hardworking and dedicated to their work. However, they need to be able to rest as well as star athletes. Leaders should encourage self-care and allow time for relaxation before celebrating team wins.

No one would ask an athlete to participate if they had a broken wrist, sprained ankle or other physical condition. And even though depression and anxiety aren’t visible, the impacts can be just as debilitating as a physical injury. Osaka and other athletes have shown that it is possible to show strength by taking responsibility for your mental health. This taboo topic has been openly discussed, which is especially important for young athletes who are dealing with the pressures of competition in their formative years.

I grew up admiring professional athletes, just like so many others. They were heroes to me, but they are still human beings, even if they are exceptional. They are still admired, but not only 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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