Going for Gold: How to Prioritize Mental Health in a Competitive Workplace (Like the Olympics)

Is going for gold worth the mental anguish? Star athletes Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles have recently spoken out about the high levels of pressure they face in their sports. Employers can learn from their examples—and help prevent their own employees from burning out.
Going for Gold: How to Prioritize Mental Health in a Competitive Workplace (Like the Olympics)
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Employee burnout is on the rise—and it’s not just surfacing in corporate America or small businesses and start-ups. It’s also impacting the lives of the world’s top athletes, including those currently participating in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. 

Indeed, Olympians face unrelenting physical, emotional, and mental stress. And as Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles have demonstrated, no matter how on top of your game you are, that stress can be tougher than any opponent.

So, how do you coach someone into winning a gold medal without pushing them too far? And as HR professionals and people leaders, how can you spot—and help prevent—burnout in your top performers before it’s too late? 

Here are some lessons to learn from the world’s best athletes on prioritizing mental health, no matter the workplace.

Naomi Osaka Shines a Light on Athlete Burnout

The Tokyo Olympics marked the second of two high-profile events where the athlete spoke on the implications of competitive sport on her mental health and well-being. 

Earlier in the year, Osaka withdrew from the French Open, citing that her mental health suffered from being subject to post-game press interviews. When the tournament organizers refused to let her out of her press obligations, she pulled out altogether—and took to Instagram to explain why she was putting her mental health first.

Since then, she’s returned to the sport—and just days ago, lit the cauldron at the Tokyo Olympics (where she would also be competing).

However, following a disappointing loss, Osaka shared that the pressure may have been too much.

“I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this,” Osaka said, according to The Associated Press. “I think it’s maybe because I haven’t played in the Olympics before and for the first year (it) was a bit much.” 

“I feel like my attitude wasn’t that great because I don’t really know how to cope with that pressure so that’s the best that I could have done in this situation,” she told CNN.

Let’s unpack that:

  • Osaka admits she was under a lot of pressure 
  • She highlights that she was competing in a new environment (and it was a bit much)
  • She acknowledges her mindset wasn’t where she would have liked it to be (possibly because of the pressure, burnout, her mental health, or something else)
  • She communicates that she didn’t know how to cope given the above circumstances

HR and people team leaders, this is where you come in.

If any of your employees are communicating to you that they’re under immense pressure, operating in a new environment that feels like it’s too much, acknowledging their attitude is affecting their ability to be productive, and/or admitting they don’t know how to cope—those are all signs of burnout. 

And you have to act to help them. This means:

  • Helping identify what the priority work is (and isn’t)
  • Shifting workload and/or adding resources (such as time or a colleague) to help lessen the burden 
  • Asking if your employee’s okay—and if they’re not, being ready to offer support, encourage them to take time off, and/or refer them to someone trained (e.g., an Employee Assistance Program specialist) to help
  • Letting them know you’re there to support them and help them work through it ​​

While not everyone competes (works) on a global stage, everyone deserves to prioritize their mental health—whether a gold medal is on the line or not. 

"The days are long but the years are short as an athlete. It’s one of the hardest challenges mentally, spiritually, and physically but it’s also one of the most rewarding seasons of life competing against the best in the world." — Travis Hansen, CEO at Eddy, former NBA Player

Simone Biles Prioritizes Mental Health Over a Medal

If you haven’t been following her story, Biles has been open about her waning interest in the sport—partially due to the mounting pressure to keep achieving. So it comes as little surprise we’re seeing the damaging effects of burnout play out during the Olympics.

Despite the pressure to win, and her well-deserved status as the GOAT, she bowed out of yesterday’s competition—putting her mental health and her team’s hopes to win first. 

Thankfully, she was surrounded by a strong team; one that allowed her to take a step back and still place second at the Olympics.

So, what’s the takeaway for HR and people leaders here?  

  • Recognize when employees aren’t enjoying what they do anymore—and might be better suited for a different role
  • Build strong teams that lift eachother up—and step in when a teammate needs a break 
  • Top performers burn out too; look for the signs and respond when they ask for help
  • Teams work best when they complement each other’s strengths; hire to fill the gaps in your team, not for the same skills you already have

We’re on Your Team (Even If You’re a Team of One)

We know staying on top of today’s ever-changing workplace can be a lot for a small HR team, especially if you’re a team of one. At Eddy, we help take the administrative tasks off your plate, so you can focus on taking care of employees.

Want to keep up with the trends (and real-life lessons) shaping the HR industry? Subscribe to get our weekly updates right to your inbox. 

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