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Naomi Osaka Shines Further Light on Mental Health Issues in the Workplace

Tennis star Naomi Osaka is not the first high-profile professional athlete to put mental health front and center in the public realm, but considering the timing and today’s climate, she may become the most significant.  

Source: Leonard Zhukovsky / shutterstock

Before the start of the French Open late last month, Osaka announced she would be skipping post-match interviews in an effort to preserve her mental health. Tournament organizers responded by fining Osaka $15,000 for skipping these mandatory media interviews, and the Board of Grand Slam tennis tournaments issued a joint statement warning that further discipline could occur if Osaka continued her stance in the future.

Osaka thereafter abruptly withdrew from the French Open, announcing via social media that she was taking some time “away from the court” and disclosing that she had been suffering from depression and anxiety since 2018. Fellow athletes and other celebrities immediately spoke out in support of Osaka, citing her bravery in sharing her battles with mental health, and numerous articles have been written since discussing the importance of recognizing, de-stigmatizing, and addressing such mental health issues.

Again, Osaka isn’t the first professional athlete to discuss or disclose these internal battles. In the NBA, both Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozen have talked openly about suffering from panic attacks and depression. MLB pitcher Zach Greinke has talked about his social anxiety, and Olympian Michael Phelps has been equally as vocal about his bouts with depression and the subsequent toll on his mental health. While these athletes, and many others who have spoken openly about mental health, also received support among their peers and the public in general, Osaka’s situation occurs at a time when mental health is more at the forefront than ever before.

It is no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a strain on individuals, both at home and at work. But even with the relaxation of regulations, opening up of businesses, and increase in vaccinations, concerns about mental health persist. In fact, certain polls suggest that after a slight improvement in the earlier part of 2021, individuals are now showing increased feelings of anxiety and depression based on a combination of factors, including, but not limited to, the prospects of returning to the workplace in person after so much time off or concerns about losing one’s job in light of the lack of other opportunities due to the closure of so many businesses during the pandemic.

Osaka’s recent disclosure will create even more awareness among the public, particularly during these trying times, further de-stigmatizing mental health and offering individuals the courage needed to speak up. Employers must be prepared for this, as well. 

It is well known that at the federal level, the Americans with Disabilities Act can cover mental disabilities that substantially limit a major life activity, examples of which could include depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and other ailments, and thus requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations. Mental health issues could also qualify as a serious health condition under the Family and Medical Leave Act, thereby providing employees the opportunity to take a leave of absence. At the state level, even more protections could be afforded to employees, including qualifying certain mental health ailments as “disabilities” under state law, even if they don’t “substantially limit a major life activity” as required under federal law, as well as specific COVID-related laws providing employees sick leave for mental health reasons. 

However, while the law hasn’t changed drastically (other than laws specifically enacted for COVID-specific relief), the circumstances have. Whereas employees may have previously been more hesitant to seek accommodations, a leave of absence, or sick days from work for mental health reasons, individuals today are more cognizant of the importance of maintaining their mental health in a pandemic and, hopefully, post-pandemic world.   

Employers need to ensure that their response to any employee’s disclosure of mental health issues is compliant with applicable law for the simple reason that this shift in public perception not only increases the likelihood that an employee will request options from his or her employer in connection with such issues but also emboldens individuals to seek legal action against employers for failing to do so. Employers should ensure that their managers and HR personnel are trained to be cognizant and supportive of mental health issues in the workplace and not dismiss them out of hand because an employee has no outward or obvious ailments.  

While Osaka chose to voluntarily withdraw from the French Open, the response from officials (including fines and threats of further discipline) certainly would be construed as retaliation in a workplace setting, in addition to a host of other legal causes of action. While these officials likely won’t face any sort of legal action from Osaka, and merely had to issue a public statement apologizing for their treatment of Osaka, other employers might not be so lucky.