Simone Biles’ decision to pull out of the Olympic team gymnastics finals to focus on her mental health makes her the most recent in a spate of athletes dismantling the stigma around putting themselves and their mental wellbeing above their career.
During the tennis season, we saw Naomi Osaka drop out of the French Open because of the effect press conferences have on her wellbeing and Emma Raducanu withdraw from Wimbledon following breathing difficulties, possibly a symptom of an anxiety attack, during her match.
Although there has been some backlash, especially in the case of Biles and Osaka who have openly cited mental health issues, all three athletes have received a general outpouring of support and blown open the conversation around prioritising mental health over work.
Most of us are not on an international stage at work, but mental health issues can still affect anyone. It is time for mental wellbeing related sick leave to be destigmatised. The past year has been difficult for everyone and has highlighted the importance of employers being compassionate and understanding of issues surrounding mental wellbeing.
Everyone can learn from Osaka, Biles and Raducanu and the support that their sponsors and coaches have shown them. By accepting mental health problems and allowing employees to take time off as they would with a physical illness, employers can help employees rest and access the help that they need early on before matters deteriorate further.
As well as early intervention minimising the amount of time the employee may need to take off work, these actions will make them feel valued and cared for in a time of need, boosting job satisfaction and reinforcing that mental health problems are common and not something to feel ashamed of.
Elite athletes and regular employees all face pressure and expectations, and this can take a serious toll on mental health. We live in an era with a scientific understanding of mental health issues that proves that they are as valid as physical ailments. Going forwards, this needs to be reflected by employers all over the world as ensuring employee mental wellbeing is protected and understood is far more effective than forcing people to lie or work through it, and we should all be celebrating the athletes helping to promote this.