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What leaders can learn from Simone Biles’ Olympics exit

The CMO of Hibob observes that Biles’ exit resonates so deeply because it comes after 15+ months of living amid the stress of a pandemic—when more and more Americans are coming into contact with the struggles of mental health, especially in the workplace.

What leaders can learn from Simone Biles’ Olympics exit
[Photo: Cheng Min/Xinhua via Getty Images]
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Simone Biles taught us all a lesson about mental health in the workplace.

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The most significant show of determination at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was Simone Biles walking away from the competition to focus on her mental health.

“We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being,” read a statement from USA Gymnastics. “Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many.”

The outpouring of support for Biles shows that people are taking mental health seriously and are here to talk about it. By saying “no” and putting her own health above all else, Biles sparked a conversation about the weight of expectations and the demands we place on others. It also resonates so deeply because it comes at an important time—after 15+ months of living amid the stress of a pandemic—when more and more Americans are coming into contact with the struggles of mental health, especially in the workplace.

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Study after study indicates that as the pandemic continues, people are feeling more anxiety; and despite companies’ awareness of the trend, employees feel they are not receiving the support they need from employers. Late last year, Hibob conducted a study to understand the impact of the pandemic on employee mental health and productivity. In this survey, 49% of respondents said their mental health over the past year had a major effect on productivity. The study pointed to a 22% decline in mental health for employees and a 12% decline for managers.

How can business leaders and HR address feelings of burnout and employee well-being?

Simone Biles’ openness about her mental health struggles is brave and inspiring. If the #GOAT can stand up and say, “I need to take care of myself,” it empowers others to do the same. Role models have the power to chip away at any stigma around mental health and make it easier for others to open up and seek help. Many people who suffer from anxiety or depression have years of experience at faking wellness, especially in the office where performance and commitment are constantly measured. Business leaders who face similar pressures should speak openly about mental health—their struggles, treatment, what’s worked, and what hasn’t. Remember that it’s okay to model vulnerability. Empower your people to speak up, advocate for themselves, and ask for what they need. In the workplace, those needs can range from better mental health benefits to parental care and PTO.

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At the same time, business leaders can’t wait for employees to raise their hands and ask for help. Leaders and HR need to create work environments that stress the importance of work/life balance. This can be achieved through time-off policies that allow employees to take unlimited sick or mental health days, sending the message that even if you’re currently working from your bedroom, a migraine, stomach cramps, or fogginess are all valid reasons to take the day off and recharge.

In a remote work environment, managers aren’t around to pick up on the signs of burnout and stress. If you are a manager, speak to more junior employees about mental health, ask them how they’re feeling, and recognize that burnout and anxiety are more common than you think. In 2019, even before the pandemic, the World Health Organization labeled employee burnout a medical condition. Professionals in the field say the issue has only gotten worse as employees deal with the social isolation of working from home and the stress of living with changing restrictions and health risks. In fact, a study revealed that nearly one in every four junior-level employees has experienced a decline in mental health since March 2020.

While job satisfaction is back to pre-pandemic levels, people are still working long hours and having to balance family life with professional obligations, which can have a severe impact on their mental health. Research shows that the flexibility of remote work is the key to job satisfaction, and helps contribute to a better work-life balance. As more companies adopt hybrid work strategies, which allow for flexible work hours and locations, more employees will benefit from the freedom to work the way they want to. Flexible scheduling gives people more time to focus on themselves so they can bring dedication and commitment to the job without feeling overextended. And as more leaders take a cue from Biles and open up about their own struggles with mental health, it can have a real impact on anyone who feels that they’re struggling alone or can’t ask for what they need.

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The reaction to Simone Biles’ Olympics withdrawal shows that society is getting better at talking about mental health. The show of love and support for Biles proves that there is courage in speaking up and saying “no.” The message for companies around the world is: Take care of your employees, take mental health seriously, and give your employees the flexibility to balance it all. Before they stand up and say “no.”


Rhiannon Staples is the CMO of Hibob.