Naomi Osaka quitting French Open highlights role in tackling mental health risks

Naomi Osaka during the first round of the Roland-Garros 2021
Independent Photo Agency / Alamy Stock Photo

The news that tennis player Naomi Osaka has withdrawn from the French Open in order to protect her mental health has raised questions about how employers can support staff who are required to complete tasks that affect their wellbeing.

The four-time Grand Slam champion was threatened with expulsion from the tournament and fined following her decision not to speak with the press, which she said causes her “huge waves of anxiety”.

She later withdrew from the tournament, stating that it would be the best thing for her wellbeing.

The furore over her decision, and the response of the tournament organisers, has raised questions about what organisations should do if an employee is expected to carry out tasks that put their mental health at risk, said Neha Thethi, head of employment at Lime Solicitors.

“Osaka has suffered from depression since 2018 which was exacerbated by the pressure of engaging with the media,” she said.

“Speaking from experience, I have seen people ask for reasonable adjustments, which in any job can be difficult. Some employers still push back against the need to accommodate people who suffer with their mental health. Osaka’s positive example has hopefully opened up crucial dialogue about mental health relating to athletes.”

Thethi said that being mentally healthy is vital for everyone, “regardless of whether you are a four-time Grand Slam champion or someone who sits in front of the computer screen all day”.

Centre for Mental Health chief executive Sarah Hughes said small adjustments and changes can often be made to employees’ work to help avoid mental health risks.

“Sadly, it appears that has not happened in this case. But we must ensure that we learn from it. All workplaces can do better at responding when people say they are having difficulty. Professional sport should be in the lead, showing the way, not lagging behind,” said Hughes.

“We applaud Naomi Osaka for speaking out, and we welcome the debate that we hope this will engender. But we call on those in positions of power, privilege and influence to use their platforms to bring empathy, compassion and understanding, to fight rather than foment prejudice, and to help us all move forward.”

In a statement, the Grand Slams (the Australian Open, Roland-Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open) said they had jointly written to Osaka to check on her wellbeing and offer support, underline their commitment to all athletes’ wellbeing and suggest dialogue on the issues.

The statement said: “The mental health of players competing in our tournaments and on the Tours is of the utmost importance to the Grand Slams.

“We individually and collectively have significant resources dedicated to player wellbeing. In order to continue to improve however, we need engagement from the players to understand their perspective and find ways to improve their experiences. Every year we seek to deliver better experiences to our fans, our players and our people, and we have a long and successful track record in achievement on this count.”

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