COVID-19 pushed the topic of mental health out of the shadows. Simone Biles, America’s most decorated gymnast, is now shining an Olympic-sized spotlight on an issue that, directly or indirectly, touches everyone. Biles withdrew from the Olympic women’s gymnastics team final and all-around competitions citing mental health concerns, joining other well-recognized and well-respected athletes, including tennis great Naomi Osaka, in choosing mental health over broken records, cheering crowds, gold medals, and first-place trophies.
What we see at the Olympics is being mirrored in conference rooms and offices nationwide. Dubbed the “great resignation,” employees are choosing to put their mental health and well-being first. Prudential Financial’s “Pulse of the American Worker Survey” estimates one in four workers is planning to look for a new job once the pandemic has subsided.
Furthermore, according to the latest “Mental Health Index: U.S. Worker Edition,” elevated risk of pandemic-fueled post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (up 56% when compared with pre-COVID-19) continues, driving stress levels up and adversely impacting employees’ resilience and cognition, particularly their capacity to focus.
So what can we as business leaders learn from Biles? Here are a few top takeaways.
We cannot expect our employees to open up about mental health concerns in the workplace if we, as leaders, cannot show our vulnerability. Furthermore, we must embrace our own humanity and take care of ourselves by using the mental health and well-being resources available to us. Like it or not, we are role models.
Being authentic about our own mental health struggles—whether they be anxiety, stress, depression, or PTSD—gives our employees permission to be more transparent without fear of negative repercussions and before they hit a crisis point. A culture that de-stigmatizes mental health is one step closer to a mentally healthy work environment. Biles’s example cannot be more powerful.
Lead with Empathy
Biles entered the Tokyo Olympics as the favorite and was expected to bring home multiple gold medals and lead Team USA to victory. When Biles opened up about her mental health struggles and decided to withdraw from team competition, she received an outpouring of compassion and support from teammates, coaches, and Olympic officials and athletes. Her stakeholders accepted her without judgment and in full compassion.
Empathetic leadership is a recurring theme of our conversations with employers nationwide as they navigate the post-pandemic corporate terrain. For many business executives, there is a fear they will be less respected if they accept and accommodate the occasional weakness. Yet, we know that empathy drives better business outcomes, from improved productivity to greater loyalty. Embracing both the strengths and the weaknesses of our workers and allowing for their struggles at times is the foundation of a leadership style that is anchored in truth and authenticity. Empathy is what employees from around the globe are now seeking.
Be Culturally Healthy
Despite withdrawing from Olympic team competition, few would deny that Biles is a 2021 Olympic champion. Her stance—mental and physical well-being over athletic pursuit—was a brave and career-defining decision. Success for Biles as a mental health influencer may be far more valuable, far-reaching, and impactful than another Olympic gold medal. She prioritized her health over all else, and the results speak for themselves.
As business leaders, we must do the same. The employees returning to the workplace in 2021 will not be the same employees who fled the virus in 2020. You can expect some disruption to performance and productivity, but employee mental well-being and business performance cannot be siloed. A decline in cognitive competencies is the natural fallout of deteriorating mental health, which is linked to persistent stress and anxiety. Providing a plethora of mental health resources to meet the diverse needs of your workers and creating policies and guidelines with mental well-being at the forefront will not only make for happier employees but also drive performance, productivity, retention, and recruitment.
Biles let herself be vulnerable and prioritized her mental health over other barometers of success. And by all accounts, she is a gold medal winner. If business leaders can learn Biles’s lesson, they, too, will reap immeasurable rewards, not the least of which is a sustainably successful business operation.
Louis Gagnon is CEO and managing director of Total Brain, a mental health and brain performance self-monitoring and self-care platform with 1M registered users. Gagnon is Advisor to TPG Capital, a top-tier US private equity firm. As a corporate executive, Louis held dual Chief Product Officer and Chief Marketing Officer roles at Audible/Amazon, Yodle and Monster Worldwide.
Daryl Tol is Executive Vice President, One Mind, a leading brain health nonprofit. Tol oversees the One Mind at Work programs and contributes to One Mind’s vision and objectives. Tol brings more than 20 years of healthcare leadership, as well as personal, lived experience of mental health struggles. He comes to One Mind from Advent Health, where he served as President/CEO of the nonprofit health system’s Central Florida division.