Tennis star Naomi Osaka makes strong statement about workplace mental health

‘It’s a good starting point when people are able to say, “I’m not doing well and I need to do something that will get me better,”’ says UCLA Health psychiatrist Tim Fong
Dr. Timothy Fong (Photo by Joshua Suddock/UCLA Health)

Naomi Osaka already may have been a role model for young women, tennis players and athletes in general. But by withdrawing from two of the world’s biggest tennis tournaments – the French Open, then Wimbledon – to focus on her mental health, she became a role model for anyone interested in setting healthy boundaries at work.

“I give her a lot of credit for saying openly, ‘I cannot do my job right now,’” says Tim Fong, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.

“It’s no different than a doctor or lawyer or musician saying, ‘Because of something going on with my body or my brain, I can’t do my customary job and I need to take some time,’” he says. “I think that’s incredibly courageous, in any field, and that’s the discussion we should be having.”

Osaka announced on social media that she had suffered “long bouts of depression” since 2018 and experienced “huge waves of anxiety” when addressing global media during post-match news conferences.

“I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences,” she said in a post on May 31 during the French Open.

For some people, shopping – online or in-person – can have serious harmful consequences.
"Shopping problems will definitely continue as shopping in the online space has become even easier, more accessible and essentially instantaneous and anonymous," says Dr. Timothy Fong. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

After tournament officials fined her for her decision and threatened to disqualify or suspend her from future Grand Slam events, Osaka withdrew from the tournament. The world’s No. 2-ranked female tennis player subsequently decided to skip Wimbledon in favor of “some personal time with friends and family,” her agent said June 17.

Osaka plans to compete in the Tokyo Summer Olympics in July, the agent said.

Talking about mental health at work

Osaka’s off-court decisions garnered widespread attention and support from other professional athletes and mental-health advocates. They serve as an example of what it looks like for an individual to prioritize health, particularly mental health, in the context of work obligations.

It’s not easy to do, as anyone who has suffered mental-health challenges can attest. The stigma around mental illness makes it a condition people often prefer to keep secret. Though mental illness is almost as common as diabetes in this country, it can be far more difficult to discuss, especially at work.

“It’s a good starting point when people are able to say, ‘I’m not doing well and I need to do something that will get me better,’” Dr. Fong says. “As professionals, we all have all sorts of stress and difficulties and things we have to do within our jobs that irritate us or aggravate our mental health or create problems for us. It’s much healthier to figure out ways to adapt, modify or address it, rather than just endure the suffering.”

Still, Dr. Fong says many of his patients insist they can’t take time off from work and are reluctant to say anything about their mental-health challenges.

The Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to my patients, ‘You’re not really functional right now. You need to take a week or two off.’ And they always say, ‘Nope. Can’t do it. Bad time. I don’t want to disappoint people. I’m too embarrassed. I don’t want people to know it’s a mental-health issue,’” he says. “It would be amazing if we can start to change that narrative.”

Other athletes share mental health challenges

Osaka’s disclosures could help move the needle, thanks to her high profile and status as a four-time Grand Slam champ. But what really changes the landscape is when there’s not just one example, but many.

Athletes have been outspoken about mental health in recent years: Olympians Michael Phelps, Amanda Beard and Alexi Pappas have spoken openly about their experiences with depression; former NBA star Metta World Peace thanked his therapist when he won a championship with the L.A. Lakers in 2010; soccer standout Landon Donovan has talked publicly about his lifelong battles with depression.

Perhaps in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought so much anxiety and loss to so many, everyday workers might feel more comfortable asking their employers for help or time off when experiencing mental anguish.

“This could potentially be a watershed moment,” Dr. Fong says of the attention around Osaka’s declaration. “Or it could be swept under the rug a few months from now.”

For more information about treatment for mental health conditions, contact UCLA Health's Behavioral Health Associates.