23/04/2021 - 14:00

Don’t just ‘be a good sport’ with mental health

23/04/2021 - 14:00

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As in sports, our business culture has a way to go in terms of acknowledging and dealing with mental health issues.

Don’t just ‘be a good sport’ with mental health
High-performance athletes face significant challenges. Photo: Stockphoto

Sport can often provide us with a relatable lens for understanding our experiences in a broader context.

An essential part of life for many Australians, sport can provide a culture through which we can all connect.

This is why sport has a unique potential for exploring issues that affect us all beyond the playing fields.

The Australian Institute of Sport recently released the ‘Mental Health Audit Snapshot 2020’, which followed research undertaken in 2018 to understand the mental health needs of athletes and staff in high-performance sport.

At first glance, the most alarming piece of data from both reports appears reasonably benign, with the 2020 Snapshot showing that: “The majority of those surveyed choose to speak to friends and family networks when experiencing mental health challenges”.

Similarly, the 2018 research showed that 75 per cent of athletes were likely to speak to partners, family or friends.

However, a deeper dive into the research showed only 14 per cent said they were likely to speak with their high-performance staff.

Clearly, it’s a good thing that athletes are willing to speak to their family support networks about mental health, but it’s equally obvious that speaking about mental health to those who employ you, who select you, and who are in control of your career is not a common experience.

The world of elite sport is tough, it’s stressful and there are constant expectations of athletes to perform at their best. Unfortunately, the narrative of ‘it’s a tough job, you’ve got to deal with it’ strongly influences why athletes avoid speaking of mental health challenges with staff.

If you show physical weakness, your spot is on the line. If you show mental weakness, it’s no different.

There is a view that being at the top is a privilege, and athletes and sportspeople should do anything to stay there because ambitious competitors are snapping at their heels. So that’s what a lot of athletes do: they deal with mental health issues silently or away from the world of sport so they don’t miss an opportunity to succeed, and especially so they don’t lose their spot. They ‘suck it up’ and ignore a lot.

This misunderstood idea of ‘privilege’ to have a certain career or to be at the top extends into many workplaces and industries. High-pressure jobs and executive positions that have taken many years to obtain, just like that of an elite athlete, are often tarred with this same narrative.

The pressure of the tasks, the deadlines and the demands of excellence are all viewed as part of the job that you’ve just got to deal with it if you want to be successful.

There is some truth to this belief. Some careers are tough and performing well is part of the job. But ‘just dealing with it’ and ignoring the mental health challenges that arise should not be part of the job.

According to the Black Dog Institute, mental illness is now the leading cause of sickness absence and long-term work incapacity in Australia. And as the 2019 ABS Cause of Death report shows, the highest rate of suicides is among young and middle-aged cohorts, with the median age being 43.9 years (a prime time for someone to be in a high-level career position).

Data from TNS Research’s 2014 State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia report also showed a reluctance among employees to disclose mental health issues with their employers, and that there is a common view from employees that organisational leaders aren’t committed to promoting the mental health of their staff.

We need to begin to change the narrative of high-level careers that play to the idea that one should do anything to remain in their privileged position. We need to create mentally healthy workplaces, where mental health is supported internally rather than just via external supports.

What we see in sport – athletes unlikely to seek internal help because of the fear around how this may affect their position or selection – is no different in the workplace, where fear leads to silence.

Perhaps this example of sport gives us an opportunity to reflect on our workplaces and see where change may be necessary. Can we remove the stigma around high-level positions, encourage internal discussions and challenge the narrative of ‘‘it’s a tough job, you’ve just got to deal with it’?

Lily Brazel is a former Hockeyroo (2017- 2020). She retired, aged 25, for mental health and wellbeing reasons and founded circular athletic apparel brand Stature

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