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The power of vulnerability at work

11th June 2021 By Claire Hastie
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From school age through University and especially for the first 6 or so years of my career, showing vulnerability at work was definitely not encouraged.

So, seeing Naomi Osaka pull out of the French Open recently citing mental health reasons struck a chord with me.

She’s a four-time Grand Slam singles champion, and very successful by most people’s standards. However, in protecting her own boundaries she has said no to a potential career highlight. In addition, she has incurred an over £10k fine for skipping two news conferences she was contractually obliged to attend.

Brené Brown, of the infamous ‘The power of vulnerability’ Ted Talk says “Vulnerability without boundaries is not vulnerability”. She guides people through opening up in a professional capacity to avoid displays of honesty backfiring.

Osaka’s honesty and show of vulnerability has been applauded by many, with support from Serena Williams, Martina Navratilova and Coco Gauff, but on the flip side plenty have criticised her decision. Not insignificantly, the grand slam organisers themselves in threatening expulsion from future tournaments and issuing the fine. Piers Morgan suggested Osaka had “played the mental health card to avoid legitimate media scrutiny” to which she tweeted “Anger is a lack of understanding. Change makes people uncomfortable”.

It’s not just a case of moral obligation. There is a huge financial cost involved in not respecting mental health battles. The World Health Organisation considers work good for our health. However, they do note that depression and anxiety cost the global economy an estimated $1 trillion each year in lost productivity, in the UK costing employers approx. £2.4 billion.  Furthermore, mental health issues are consistently amongst the top 4 reasons for absence in the UK.

As we say at Social, ‘Life Happens’. We’re all people on different journeys – yes, of course we’re employed to work, but surely the most productive version of ourselves isn’t always the round the clock, caffeine fuelled, close to breaking point workaholic. Studies have found that companies deploying programmes addressing mental health issues can present a return of interest of up to 800%.

In being true to herself, and respecting her needs Osaka challenged a process, she wasn’t mentally able to conduct her press obligations, so didn’t. Is questioning the way things ‘have always been done’ wrong? Would she have been fined if she had physically hurt herself, and was incapacitated in hospital? Are we still struggling to break the stigma around mental health?

One of the beautiful things about people, that I believe sometimes we overlook in a professional capacity, is that we are all different. It is a simple concept really but being honest with ourselves are we truly accepting of this?

We have introverts, extroverts, ambiverts (for those who love a label!) people who are comfortable speaking to 2,000 people and those who prefer to work quietly alone, neither being ‘better’ than the other. How many times do we question the ‘quiet person’ in meetings, or get frustrated with the person who takes up more time than we think they deserve? Is Osaka any less of a tennis player because she couldn’t speak at the press conferences? Is she any less of a professional athlete if media relations are par for the course?

Holding everybody to the same standards means we will become increasingly frustrated by people who don’t act as we ourselves decide is appropriate. Osaka angered those that felt she was duty bound to her commitments but gained the support of those who could empathise with her display of vulnerability.

Now, don’t get me wrong, part of a professional athlete’s role is handling the media, and contractually Osaka was required to speak at the conferences, but who’s responsibility is it that she was able to do so. The International Tennis Federation? Hers?  I think a real win here would have been for the ITF, rather than vindicate its actions, to offer up a solution to help those players struggling with anxiety and depression handle the more challenging elements of their roles. It will be interesting to see how this is dealt with over the coming weeks.