We all have an Olympic lesson to learn about mental and physical health

Simone Biles (Getty Images)
Simone Biles (Getty Images)

Why is it still so much easier for many people to say that they are sick with a tummy bug than that they cannot come to work because of the state of their mental health?

To be match fit, your mental and emotional wellbeing is as crucial as your physical health. Recent events in the Olympics have highlighted this truth. It shouldn’t be so surprising, should it?

Yet when Simone Biles (pictured above) – four-time Olympic gold medallist, multiple world champion and, arguably, the greatest gymnast of all time – withdrew from the team and all-around events at the Tokyo Olympics, it was headline news across the US and the world.

As Sam Quek, 2016 Olympic hockey medallist, speaking on BBC TV put it, mental and physical health are equally important. She added: “As the story unfolded… I was getting more and more frustrated. I'd see these headlines popping up saying how Biles was weak, she wasn't mentally strong enough to deal with the pressure. On social media, people were accusing her of using it as an excuse to pull out of the vault because she wasn't performing as well. I just think it's absolute nonsense. She said she wasn't in the right mental frame of mind to go and perform well enough and that she could have caused herself some damage. Every sports person knows that if you go in half-cocked, you're going to cause yourself an injury: none more so than in gymnastics. She has laid down a foundation for so many athletes and people around the world to say: 'In this moment in time, inside, something didn't feel right.' She had the bravery and the courage to pull out of the event.”

MediaCom global COO Josh Krichefski has introduced mental health allies at MediaCom to prioritise people taking care of themselves emotionally as well as physically at work, a move made doubly important by the events of the past year. It is intended to ensure that no-one is overwhelmed, and always has someone to talk to.

Yet it’s still much easier for many to say that they are sick with a tummy bug than that they cannot come to work because of the state of their mental health. Why on earth should one be more acceptable than the other? Just as you don’t always have a doctor’s note for your absence for physical health, you may not have a diagnosis of your mental health either. Although I must add a caveat to this by acknowledging that the difficulties people with a mental health diagnosis face in the workplace are very different from being overwhelmed by stress and your emotions on a particular day.

We know from research conducted by Dynata for our book Belonging, that people who have been diagnosed with mental illness at work are subject to bias, harassment and inappropriate behaviour to a greater extent than the workforce in general.  

Overall, 18% of workers have been diagnosed with a mental health problem, and this rises to 32% of under-25s. In research conducted by Mind, of the respondents reporting mental health problems, 89% said these affected their working life. We also know from extensive interviews that you don’t need to have had a mental health diagnosis to feel vulnerable and unable to work at the pace that most businesses in our sector require as business as usual. 

Olympian and chair of UK Sport Dame Katherine Grainger commented recently that there have been huge changes since the last Olympics in terms of openness. We’ve seen athletes who are clearly physically at the peak of fitness (or they would not be in Tokyo) own their mental health unfitness in a way that, she says, would have been unthinkable five years ago.

We must ensure that those changes and that openness is true for our industry, too.  As Ruby Wax puts it: “Your insides don’t know what your outsides do for a living.” 

Compassion for someone’s inability to run a marathon with a broken leg should be no different from compassion for someone’s inability to face workplace challenges with mental health issues.

We can expect peak performance only from people whom we expect and encourage to really look after themselves, in every respect. We all need resilience at work and in life in general.  Writing in his book Tao of Bowie,10 lessons from David Bowie’s life to help you live yours, Mark Edwards points out: “We could all use a little less suffering.”

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom

Picture credit: Laurence Griffiths/staff/Getty Images

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