Should workplaces be more accepting of mental health? Naomi Osaka leaves French tournament early

Body+Soul writer Shona Hendley shares her experience of the workplace/mental health dynamic.

Tennis player Naomi Osaka made headlines recently when she said no to her job for the sake of her mental health.

“Here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences,” she said about her decision to pay a fine rather than take part in the compulsory post-match media conferences.

When officials warned her that there may be further code of conduct infringement consequences if she didn’t take part, she pulled out of the tournament all together.

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When I first read about her decision my immediate reaction was relief. Not because I wanted her (or anyone) to be in the position she was in, because her decision made me feel seen and understood.

Only a week or so before Naomi’s French Open experience I went through my own ‘no moment.’ Mine resulted in me resigning from my job in order to prioritise my mental health because remaining there would have been detrimental for it. It already was.

In my experience, while I had been actively managing my depression and anxiety for my entire employment and long before it, it was incidents within the past year where my job began to directly impact my mental health and my ability to manage these conditions.

Professor of Work & Organisational Psychology at the Centre for Workplace Excellence, University of South Australia, Michelle Tuckey says that “around one in five people in the working population have a mental health challenge and it is really important to know that working conditions are actually a major risk factor to mental health.”

“Different layers of things in the work environment can have a significant influence,” she says.

This can range from the work culture, relationship between management and team members, through to the nature and demands of the role and the available resources.

In my case, there was a combination of incidents from a variety of these layers, that resulted in an unhealthy working environment for me. Inevitably because of them, I lost confidence, felt unsupported, and ultimately became too anxious to go into work.

Professor Tuckey says there are four main areas where the impact of work on mental health “can show up.” Emotions, behaviour, thinking and the physical body.

In my experience, my body felt as if it was electrified with nervous energy. My stomach continuously churned, my teeth would grind non-stop and my fingers would fidget without me even realising.

My mind was much the same, always moving, ruminating, worrying. I would lay awake for hours of the night processing the events over and over, worrying it was my fault, that I deserved what had happened. I cried, a lot.

I was tense and on edge all the time so much so that I would lose my temper at my husband and with my kids for little, or no reason and then become overwhelmed and upset with myself for doing it.

Essentially, my mental health was in tatters.

Professor Tuckey says that “effects of mental health can be really serious. In the most serious cases they [an employee] might consider suicide.”

While suicide was never something that crossed my mind, my mental health was still severely impacted and it is still recovering now.

My experience is of course different to Naomi Osaka’s in many ways, but it is also similar. It is also probably similar to many other people out there who each day are trying to deal with the way work directly impacts their own mental health.

Because the reality is, this is common, very common.

What else is common is the belief that we should ‘separate the two’, that we should not let our personal life influence our work life, that we can put up a fence and separate them.

Professor Tuckey says that “mental health is a holistic concept. It doesn’t make sense to carve up our mental health into things that belong to work and things that are outside of work.”

Unfortunately though, many managers, many workplaces, many colleagues, still do and this is why so many of us, like me, like Naomi are left with hard choices like walking away from a job we otherwise enjoyed, or a grand slam we wanted to play because ultimately, we were left no other viable alternative.

And while it might be wonderful if work could remain separate to everything else in our life, it never will and the sooner our workplaces, our colleagues, our managers take this reality on board, the better it will be for all of us. Because who wouldn’t want to see Naomi Osaka the world number two play in the French Open?

Shona Hendley is a freelance writer and ex-secondary school teacher. You can follow her on Instagram: @shonamarion.