Sports in the news – what do the employment lawyers think this March?

Sports in the news – what do the employment lawyers think this March?


24th March 2022

2021: the year that athletes started prioritising their mental wellbeing over “turning up”

Pressure makes diamonds. That’s the attitude we have towards the pressures faced by the very best athletes in the world. Very little regard is ever really given to the emotional and psychological stress athletes put themselves through to meet our lofty expectations. In fact, whenever questions over an athlete’s psychological state are raised, it’s rarely ever met with understanding and compassion. Instead, we see questions over an athlete’s commitment, their “desire” to win and whether or not they are “strong enough” to succeed. Finally, athletes themselves have begun to push back. There were several examples in 2021 of high-profile athletes opting to take time off and pushing back on excessive demands for the sake of their wellbeing. The message coming from these athletes is clear: my wellbeing is more important than “turning up” to perform, whatever the cost.

In a 2021 interview, global superstar Neymar announced that he expected the 2022 World Cup to be his last playing for his nation. When pressed on the matter he said, “I don’t have the strength of mind to deal with football anymore”. At the age of just 30, the thought of a generational talent like Neymar bowing out from the international stage is surprising to say the least. 

Neymar isn’t the only one. The list of world class athletes stepping back from their careers to prioritise their mental wellbeing is growing. Last year Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open after declining to meet her mandatory press obligations in the competition. Her reason? She cited social anxiety, bouts of depression and the media pressure surrounding her performance. Last year also saw Simone Biles withdraw from the individual all-round competition of the Tokyo Olympics as she said she was going through a difficult period mentally. It’s important to emphasise that Simone felt she had to withdraw because she would be endangering herself physically if she ignored the problems and continued with her routine.

Of all these stories, none is more important than that of Emma Raducanu’s. In 2021, following an issue with her breathing she withdrew from Wimbledon. She was vilified by the likes of Piers Morgan who insisted she just needed to be “tougher”. Like the others, she took time away from the spotlight to focus not just on her physical wellbeing but also her mental health, as there was a lot of speculation about her psychological state during this period. After time away, she came back that September to make history and become Britain’s first female Grand Slam winner in over 30 years when she took home the U.S. Open. She capped off a brilliant year by becoming the British Sports Personality of the Year 2021. Her success spoke volumes for the importance of taking the time to admit that you are not ok.

What lessons can employers in the UK learn?

This all seems far removed from the world of employment law, you might be thinking. Well, here at GQ|Littler, mental wellbeing is incredibly important to us – not only within our own organisation, but also in terms of the advice we give to clients. We think there is a lot that employers (and employees) can learn from these athletes: not only about the link between high performance and mental wellbeing, but also in terms of the stigma and outmoded attitudes surrounding mental health in the workplace. 

Historically, it’s undeniable that there has been a gap in the way that employers, and society generally, have treated mental health as compared to physical health. Have the flu? Rest up and come back to work when you’re better. Tested positive for Covid? Stay away! But what if you’re feeling abnormally anxious, or you’ve had a flare up of a diagnosed long-term mental health condition that you’ve been too frightened to talk about at work… would your employer respond in the same way? Would you be tempted to ignore the issue and keep plugging away in the interest of “turning up”, no matter how much of an impact it is having on you and your performance?

With increased awareness about mental health, there is probably less of a stigma around mental health than there used to be. Many employers now directly reference mental health in their sickness absence policies. Some even have their own specific mental wellbeing policies, others allow employees time off for “self-care” days. While none of this is legally required, it is evidence that there has been progress in the way employers think about mental health and the way they look after their employees.

One of the things that many employers get wrong – and something that has probably contributed towards this stigma – is the false understanding that mental health struggles are a sign of weakness or “poor performance”. What the examples above show is that elite performers – the very best of the best – can suffer from poor mental health and still perform at the highest level.

This does not mean that mental health has no impact on performance. In fact, the opposite is the case – if someone is struggling with their mental health, this can impact heavily on every aspect of their daily life, including their time at work. If employees don’t look after themselves, or if their employers don’t take their attempts to look after themselves seriously, this often leads directly to a drop in performance levels. As employment lawyers, we have seen countless cases where an employer has sought to take disciplinary action against an employee, only to later find out that the poor performance was directly linked to a legitimate mental health issue that was remediable. Those who are familiar with employment law will know that this gives rise to a very real risk of disability discrimination.

What can employers learn from this? At work, we should treat mental health in much the same way as we treat physical health. We should empathise with employees who are struggling with mental health and give them the support they need to get back on their feet. We should realise that while poor mental health can result in poor performance, this doesn’t mean someone is a “poor performer” – even the most elite performers can suffer from mental health. Above all else, performance aside – especially with everything going on in the world in the moment – we should make sure that we are looking out for and helping each other. As Naomi wrote about so eloquently, we should learn that it’s OK not to be OK.