Sofia Rocher has regularly struggled with how much to disclose to her employer about her mental health.
Rocher, 32, has generalized anxiety disorder, depression and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). She has wondered whether to tell her managers that she needs to see a doctor every couple of weeks, or whether, on days when she’s particularly overwhelmed and needs a day off, to blame food poisoning or the real issue — an anxiety attack.
So when tennis superstar Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, also called Roland Garros, citing mental health concerns, Rocher paid attention. A sports fan who has watched the 23-year-old Osaka for the past several years, Rocher wasn’t necessarily surprised that the self-described introvert would want a reprieve from the press, and she applauded the athlete’s decision to prioritize her mental health, as well as her transparency about her bouts with depression.
Rocher is not famous, nor does she have the power or money to turn away work. All the same, she said she was encouraged to see Osaka “double down” on her boundaries.
Osaka is saying, “‘Nothing is more valuable than my health right now,’” Rocher said. “And that’s a message we don’t send people enough.”
Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open on Monday created shock waves across the tennis world. It came after a back-and-forth between the four-time Grand Slam champion and the sport’s top administrators, who threatened to disqualify Osaka after she announced last week she was opting out of required news conferences, citing her efforts to preserve her mental health. On Sunday they fined her $15,000 for not meeting her obligations to engage with the media.
“The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” Osaka wrote in a post shared across her social media accounts Monday, adding, “I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.”
“First and foremost, we are sorry and sad for Naomi Osaka,” Gilles Moretton, president of the French Tennis Federation, said in a statement. “The outcome of Naomi withdrawing from Roland-Garros is unfortunate. We wish her the best and quickest possible recovery, and we look forward to having Naomi at our Tournament next year.”
Osaka’s decision drew support from many other professional athletes, including basketball star Stephen Curry, Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt and Serena Williams, who’s currently vying for her fourth French Open title.
But Osaka’s stand also drew support from many online who have never been lobbed questions from a roomful of reporters, nor have millions of dollars from which to pay fines. Casual tennis fans and devotees alike used the hashtag #IStandWithNaomiOsaka, applauding her for choosing her mental health over the tournament’s demands.
For many women in particular, Osaka’s decision touched on broader concerns on mental health and work, such as whether employers are truly ready to support their workers’ needs, and how much of their own mental health they’re willing to compromise for the sake of their jobs.
Nneka Dennie, an assistant professor of history at Washington and Lee University, found Osaka’s withdrawal both inspiring and aspirational.
“I want to everyone to be able to have that type of flexibility, and the vast majority of workers simply don’t,” she said.
Hours after Osaka’s withdrawal, Dennie shared her thoughts on Twitter. “I really rock with Osaka because the stance that ‘this job is not entitled to unlimited access to me and I’m not gonna sacrifice my mental health for this job’ is an attitude I hope we can all embrace,” Dennie wrote. The tweet struck a chord, garnering nearly 100,000 likes and tens of thousands of retweets in less than 24 hours.
Dennie thinks her tweet especially struck a nerve because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“There’s been a lot of blurring between work and life, and there’s been a lot of blurring of what boundaries we might find reasonable over the past year,” she said.
“The pandemic has also made people consider what type of sacrifices they are willing to make for work,” Dennie continued. Essential workers, for example, have had to consider whether they are willing to put their lives on the line for their job.
Although Osaka has great privilege in being able to dictate the conditions of her work, this larger question of work conditions — along with our collective ability to prioritize our physical and mental health over the needs of our employers — is what makes Osaka so sympathetic, Dennie said.
That struggle resonated with Angela Davis, a 39-year-old private chef who runs a cooking blog called the Kitchenista Diaries. Osaka’s announcement triggered memories of her own struggles trying to work in jobs that exacerbated her mental health issues.
“Mental health is just not something that’s prioritized in the workplace,” said Davis, who has bipolar disorder. She said she found this especially true of corporate jobs, which felt like a particularly pernicious trap: In exchange for health insurance and compensation, Davis said, she continually sacrificed her mental well-being, tacking on extra hours and responsibilities for rewards that didn’t seem worth it.
Davis recalled one health assessment she took while working as an accountant, when a nurse expressed alarm at her high blood pressure. “The nurse pulled me aside and said, ‘I shouldn’t even be telling you this, but I’m going to tell you the same thing I would tell my daughter. ... If this is a result of stress from your job, it is simply not worth it,’” Davis said.
Davis ultimately decided to step away from the corporate world so she could have the flexibility she needed to support her mental health. She noted that many of the people she saw supporting Osaka online were also Black women like her.
Osaka is Japanese and Haitian and has used her platform on and off the court to speak out about racial justice.
“We all recognize how difficult it is to stand up for ourselves and say that our mental health and our sanity matters more than all of the people that expect things of us,” Davis said. “It’s like taking your power back, and that’s hard to do as a Black woman.”
Alfiee Breland-Noble, a psychologist and founder of the AAKOMA Project, a mental health advocacy group aimed at supporting teens and young adults of color, also noticed that Osaka’s decision seemed particularly resonant for Black women. Breland-Noble pointed out that as a mixed-race Black and Asian woman, Osaka is part of two racial groups that have been “most under siege” in the past two years.
The workplace, Breland-Noble said, can be particularly fraught for people with marginalized identities. For Black women, this means systemic, as well as interpersonal, racism, discrimination and sexism.
As Breland-Noble put it: “We are not entitled to have feelings, or experience vulnerability or have needs and desires that employers must pay attention to.”
Breland-Noble pointed out that some on social media have criticized Osaka’s decision to withdraw, insisting that Osaka “suck it up” or making the argument that, as one of the top earners in her sport, she is well compensated for her troubles. Those responses are “exactly why people don’t talk about their mental health in the workplace,” Breland-Noble said.
Nicole Ciacchella also saw herself in Osaka, a self-identified introvert. She was particularly moved by Osaka’s disclosure that she will often wear headphones to help manage her social anxiety.
Work settings can be a nightmare for Ciacchella, a 44-year-old writer and former educator. She said she particularly dislikes open floor plans, because of the noise and distraction. Even though she isn’t faced with talking to journalists after an exhausting tennis match, she feels “the same kind of pressure” to conform to an ideal that is simply just not suited for her — team activities, or engaging with large groups of people at all times.
This is especially frustrating when it’s outside her actual job responsibilities, said Ciacchella, who has worried that standing up for her boundaries will damage her reputation at work.
“I understand the idea that part of her job is to help promote the sport, but she’s a tennis player,” Ciacchella said. “She plays tennis. That really should be the emphasis.”
But watching younger women like Osaka buck norms is heartening, Ciacchella said: “They’re drawing a line in the sand and saying, you know, we’re done making sacrifices that, really, nobody should have been forced to make in the first place.”