Recently, the world of professional tennis had two different stories with substantially different public reactions regarding health issues: one mental and one physical. On Monday, May 31, Naomi Osaka announced she was bowing out of tennis’ French Open because she was having difficulty coping with her mental health issues of anxiety and depression. She said she needed time for herself to cope with those issues. On Sunday, June 6, Roger Federer withdrew from the French Open stating he needed some rest and did not want to cause additional physical strain after recuperating from two knee surgeries.
The public reaction to these two tennis players was significantly different. There was a public outcry when Naomi Osaka did not attend a post-match news conference (citing her mental health concerns). She was fined $15,000 and threatened with suspension from future events. Tournament officials conveyed no concern for her mental health publicly.
Roger Federer’s withdrawal, on the other hand, was not met with much (if any) negative public reaction. Tournament officials publicly supported his decision to withdraw as he continues recuperating from knee surgeries and preparing for the upcoming tournament at Wimbledon.
If you’ve read my blog before, you probably have an idea where I’m headed with this. Roger Federer’s withdrawal was due to a physical injury – something we can see, diagnose and easily understand. That’s an easily understood valid medical reason. After all, how can you blame a guy for withdrawing to prevent further knee injury when he’s fresh off knee surgery?
Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal, on the other hand, was due to mental illness. There are no visible cues, it is not easy to diagnose nor is it easy for us to truly understand. The tournament officials (and many in the public) did not view it as a valid medical reason. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it now, and I’m sure I will say it many times again: we should treat mental illnesses the same as physical injuries/illnesses. Both types are beyond the individual’s control.
Now you may ask, “Bob, why are you bringing up two tennis stories? How does that apply to me as an employer?” My response would be to ask if you treat employees dealing with mental health issues the same as those dealing with physical health issues. Hopefully, the available health benefits are equal for both situations. How about in regard to your time off policy, return to work light duty policy and your overall support of the employee?
Here’s an example: you have an employee who is undergoing knee replacement surgery. This employee could be out of work for a few weeks and could also miss partial days of work for physical therapy for weeks following the surgery. How would you accommodate this situation?
Now let’s look at another example: you have an employee that requires inpatient treatment for a mental health condition for a few weeks. This employee could also miss partial days of work for therapy sessions. How would you accommodate this situation?
Each of those last two examples will require significant flexibility and company support for an extended period before the employee is able to function fully to the best of their ability. Furthermore, there could be a relapse in each situation due to changing medical conditions. Would you provide the same level of flexibility and support in each of these situations on a short-and-long-term basis? If no, why not?
If the construction industry is going to continue to make progress on the mental health and suicide issues facing it, we need to continue advancing the message that mental illnesses should be treated no differently than physical ones. Supervisors should be trained so employees experiencing physical or mental health issues feel free to discuss them without fear of retribution or termination. Supervisors should also be aware of the various mental health and suicide prevention resources.
Ultimately, mental health is a major component of the overall health and safety of your employees and their overall performance. Employees burdened with unaddressed physical or mental health issues will not perform at the best of their ability. It’s important that we as employers and leaders in the construction industry understand that mental illnesses are medical conditions beyond the employee’s control and need medical support just as physical injuries/illnesses do.