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By: Kathy Albarado on August 10th, 2021

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What Happens When Your Champions Need a Mental Health Break?

Best Practices | Employee Relations | DEI

American gymnast Simone Biles made headlines during the Tokyo Olympics by unexpectedly withdrawing from several events because of concerns about her mental health. Earlier in 2021, tennis star Namoi Osaka pulled out of the French Open, also citing mental health concerns.

As a culture, we’re not really used to seeing people walk away from competition due to mental health challenges. Especially not top performers, from whom we expect so much. Both Biles and Osaka had to endure heavy criticism from commenters who labeled them “weak” and “quitters” who should have just “powered through.”

But others have heaped praise on Biles and Osaka. Many former athletes, in particular, have lined up to defend them. Some have come out and said that they wish they had that option in their competition days. A few former athletes have opened up about they ended up with life-changing damage, both physical and psychological, because they tried to power through.

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Athletes aren’t the only ones who try to power through. Around one in five Americans suffer from mental health issues during their lifetimes. People every day have to decide whether to keep going, or to stop and take some time to care for themselves.

Why does someone need a mental health break?

Simone Biles encountered a problem known in gymnastics as “the twisties”. Gymnasts rely on instinct and muscle memory to pull off their incredibly complicated (and dangerous) maneuvers. Twisties happen when something happens in the athlete’s mind to interfere with that muscle memory. They get lost in mid-air and can’t complete the move – and may seriously injure themselves on landing.

Everyone gets their own versions of the Twisties. We’ve all had the experience of suddenly forgetting how to do something we’ve done a thousand times before, whether it’s changing gears in a stick-shift car, or getting a formula to work in Excel. When this happens, it’s often because we’re feeling tired or stressed.

And it passes quickly, usually. But sometimes these problems are symptoms of more serious mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, or chronic stress.

The CDC estimates that depression can interfere with someone’s work 20% of the time, and impair cognitive abilities 35% of the time.

This directly impacts employers, who will see problems like:

  • Increased rework and lower customer satisfaction due to employee errors
  • Reduced employee engagement
  • Negative impacts on office culture
  • Spikes in absenteeism
  • Higher rate of employee turnover

This is what happens when employees try to “power through it.” Some estimates say that workplace stress can cost as much as $30 billion per year in medical costs and lost productivity. It’s clear that there’s an urgent business case for helping your people avoid getting their own version of the Twisties.

Most leaders are beginning to see this, especially after the stress of the pandemic. In a recent snap poll on the Helios HR LinkedIn page, 53% of people said that the most pressing HR concern right now was employee health and wellbeing. So, let’s talk about why leaders should care about mental health, and what we can do to support our people.

How to support employee mental health

Prevention is much better than cure when it comes to mental and physical wellbeing. Stress can accumulate without anyone realizing, including the employee themselves. It’s best to get involved and prevent things from reaching a crisis point.

Here are some steps every employer can take to help support their team:

  1. Conduct regular surveys: Regular pulse surveys will help identify specific work stressors among the team. You might discover that the current workload is causing stress, affecting employee wellbeing in the long term.
  2. Examine your benefits: Employees appreciate support in managing their own wellbeing. Make sure that your total rewards package includes wellness benefits and that your insurance plan includes mental health treatment. Employee Assistance Programs are another helpful tool that can help your team care for themselves.
  3. Perform regular check-ins: During the pandemic, many leaders started checking in with their employees just to ask, “are you doing okay?” As we move into the post-pandemic phase, it’s a good idea to keep those check-ins going. Remember, it’s easier to help your people if you identify issues sooner rather than later.
  4. Encourage use of paid time off: Over half of American workers don’t use their full annual leave allocations. When they do go on vacation, around 66% of remote workers still check in on work. Encourage your team to use their paid time off to relax and unwind.
  5. Monitor and vary workloads: Work-related stress can have a serious impact on mental health. Often, the issue is the sheer weight of the workload. Some employees may also struggle to handle certain responsibilities, or they might simply get bored of having the same tasks every day. By matching the workload to the individual, you help prevent stress while also boosting engagement.
  6. Offer personal days: According to Helios HR research, around 28% of employers offer unscheduled paid time off, with most of those companies offering a maximum of 3 days per year. Mental health days can make a huge difference to someone struggling with mental health. An emergency mental health day gives them a chance to unwind, seek mental health assistance, or simply take a break from stress.

Following these steps should help to reduce the need to provide mental health breaks to employees. If someone on the team does need some time away from work to care for their own wellbeing, work with your local HR team or an HR consultant to find a solution that works for all.

Mental health is part of a winning strategy

Simone Biles' absence gave another athlete a chance to shine. 18-year old Sunisa Lee became the first Asian-American woman to win an all-round gymnastics Gold, following her superb display in the solo event. Biles then returned to close out Team USA's amazing Olympic performance with a Bronze medal in her final event.

There’s a lesson for everyone there. Powering through can sometimes deliver a short-term goal. But caring for ourselves and for others is always what’s best for the team.

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