Naomi Osaka: Setting a boundary | Inquirer Opinion
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Naomi Osaka: Setting a boundary

Even non-followers of sports can learn something valuable from a recent shock on the tennis stage. Tennis superstar Naomi Osaka announced Monday that she was withdrawing from the French Open, after deciding to skip post-game press conferences due to anxiety.

“Though the tennis press has always been kind to me… I am not a natural public speaker, and I get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media,” Osaka tweeted. “[W]hen the time is right, I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press, and fans.”

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This was an incredible example of a person setting boundaries for the sake of their mental wellness. The more we learn about mental health, the more we understand that each individual has different stressors, different levels of tolerance, and different ways of coping. Osaka made hers clear, and while not everyone can truly empathize with her struggles, her decision to prioritize her wellbeing must be respected.

But the reactions to her exit were mixed at best. Though she was fined and warned of expulsion by Grand Slam organizers, some members of the sports media, as well as fans of the sport, were not content. Their biggest complaint: Speaking at press cons is part of the athlete’s job—she should just take the heat and do it.

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In this regard, Osaka’s situation feels all too familiar. She may be World No. 2 in tennis, but so many of us—from office employees to teachers to healthcare workers—find ourselves similarly pressured to soldier on at our jobs despite the increasingly adverse impact on our psyche. It can be due to overwork, unhealthy workplaces, toxic organizational culture, or other detrimental factors.

Naomi Osaka, of course, can financially afford to walk away from job-related stressors. Just last month, Forbes revealed that she is the highest-paid female athlete ever, earning $37 million within the previous year alone.

Not all of us have the luxury of a financial cushion that could allow us to rethink our jobs in order to tend to our mental wellness. Even taking a mental health day isn’t really a thing in the Philippines (yet).

Lucky are workers whose organizations specifically provide leeway for psychological needs. The rest of us still feel uncertain or ashamed when trying to ask for a mental health leave, or are entirely unable to request time off for anything other than physical illness.

And there’s the rub: Mental distress isn’t widely recognized by employers as a health concern. Even workers are rarely cognizant of the need for healthy mental coping. When someone does take time off because they feel overwhelmed, we don’t know what to make of it; some even doubt it.

Had Naomi Osaka excused herself from press cons because she sprained an ankle, for example, there would be less fuss, less questioning of her needs. But because she cited her mental health instead of a physical issue, her explanation was considered diva-esque and “misguided.”

Here, our handling of mental wellbeing can improve. Mental health issues must be considered legitimate health issues, because they are—just as much as a fever or a fracture is. Asking for better consideration for mental wellness is not being a diva or being selfish. A worker’s psychological state is a fundamental part of individual wellbeing, and can also ripple throughout the organization in terms of performance, productivity, and morale.

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How can a workplace better support its personnel’s mental wellness? There are endless resources on this; to cite one, the World Health Organization suggests strategies like improving staff involvement and communication, assessing job demands, reviewing the work environment, and enhancing social support from management and peers.

As for individual workers, it’s important to recognize factors that cause mental distress, set personal limits against them, and communicate with the boss and the team about those limits. (It can be as simple as avoiding work emails after 6 p.m., says career coach Caroline Castrillon.)

A constructive discussion may spring from there, producing policies or changes that are helpful not only to one person but to other colleagues who may be having the same experience. That’s essentially what Naomi Osaka did—she drew her line and sparked a long-overdue conversation far beyond sports.

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