What We Can Learn About Workplace Burnout From Naomi Osaka

The tennis star was recently fined by the French Open for prioritizing her mental health.

Naomi Osaka

Getty/Unsplash/Design by Tiana Crispino

Naomi Osaka has had quite a year. Since last June, the four-time Grand Slam champion started an international tennis academy for girls in underserved communities, routinely advocated for the Black Lives Matter movement, and launched a skincare brand designed specifically for melanated skin—all while continuing her reign as one of the most popular and highest-paid athletes in history. 

When the 23-year-old athlete announced she would be skipping media interviews during the French Open for the sake of her mental health, it felt like a breath of fresh air. Supporters praised Osaka for speaking out about experiencing burnout, and her candid statement resonated with many who have felt similarly overworked during the pandemic. "I've often felt that people have no regard for athletes' mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one," she wrote.

The powers behind the French Open, however, were less understanding. Officials from the tennis tournament fined Osaka $15,000 for missing the press interviews, and threatened the world's No. 2-ranked tennis player with suspension should she continue to skip her media obligations. The response was met with immediate criticism from figures both in and outside the tennis world. And, it sparked debate about the media’s treatment of athletes, their mental health, and the constant pressure to perform.

It also reignited the conversation around burnout, and how companies should respond when individuals need mental health support. After all, if one of the world's most respected athletes was penalized for taking a break while the world was watching, how can any of us expect different results behind closed doors?

How Burnout Manifests in the Workplace

For many of us, phases of burnout will come and go as we navigate through our careers. Athletes, however, have a much narrower window to capitalize on their talent before their bodies are slowed by age or injury. This creates "a recipe for burnout,” says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, an NYC-based neuropsychologist, as athletes need to maintain constant grueling schedules to stay at the top of their game. Plus, the ticking clock only adds pressure, she says, since "they know that retirement will likely come before the age of 40."

Meet the Expert

  • Dr. Sanam Hafeez is a Neuropsychologist and Faculty Member Columbia University based in New York City.
  • Dr. Danielle Roeske, PsyD, is the Executive Director of Newport Academy, a leading, nation-wide mental health treatment facility for young adults

In addition to the never-ending pursuit of perfection, athletes are also tasked with maintaining carefully crafted public images, notes Dr. Danielle Roeske, PsyD. “They may feel the need to always present themselves as powerful—physically and mentally—and avoid showing any sign of weakness,” she adds, which makes it even harder for them to be forthcoming about issues like mental health.

Both experts agree that when public figures speak candidly about their own struggles, it helps dissolve the stigma around mental health. This can be especially true for athletes, who we often view as super-human. “These figures tend to be idealized, so it’s all the more impactful to incorporate the notion of challenge or flaws into that idealized image,” says Roeske.

This is exactly what makes the French Open’s response to Osaka’s statement so troubling, says Hafeez. “When you fine someone and threaten them with suspension, you are literally punishing them for ‘bad behavior,’” she explains. This reaction can prevent others from speaking out in the future. “The message is: ‘Don’t do it again, there are consequences,’” she says. “That is meant to resonate with other players and strike fear.”

Why It's an Issue

Following the fine, Osaka withdrew from the tournament on Monday. In a statement, the tennis pro shared she’s suffered bouts of depression since the 2018 US Open when she won her first major. While Osaka noted her withdrawal was "the best thing for the tournament, the other players, and my well-being,” it also highlights a larger issue: Prioritizing one’s mental health often comes with consequences, especially at work.

Modern companies will frequently tout their mental health resources, unlimited PTO policies, and other vague avenues of support. But the system has not figured out how to avoid penalizing individuals, intentionally or otherwise, for actually utilizing these programs. Take a vacation day, and you’ll return to an inbox full of requests you’re already behind on; miss a meeting for a therapy appointment, and you’re suddenly out of the loop on projects.

In their statement, French Open officials said Osaka is contractually obligated to appear at post-match news conferences and noted she was "reminded of her obligations, and the consequences of not meeting them." It’s a statement bound to reinforce unhealthy habits—as we all have responsibilities, contractual or otherwise. This is especially true for women, who often bear the brunt of household and childcare, and for people of color, who frequently face discrimination and barriers that require them to work harder for the same opportunities.

What It All Means

Roeske notes while companies and organizations can be well-intentioned when putting rules or regulations in place, they need to be more attuned to the individuals they’re attaching them to. She is, however, hopeful about what lies ahead. "We seem to be moving into a time where the mental health needs of all individuals can no longer be held as an exception or afterthought," she says.

After Osaka withdrew from the French Open, many of her fellow athletes, including Serena Williams, Megan Rapinoe, and Steph Curry shared messages of support on social media. Hafeez says by rallying around Osaka and continuing the conversation, athletes can start to usher in an era of change. In fact, Osaka's public disclosure comes on the heels of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle also speaking out about their struggles. "In the latter, you have royalty, and in the former, you have a world-class athlete," she says.

These acknowledgments can help adjust how we approach burnout and mental health in the workplace. "It is my hope that, just like one can call in for a sick day or take maternity leave, the same consideration and understanding will be given toward mental health issues," she says. "Removing the stigma is half the battle."

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