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Naomi Osaka and the limits of accommodations for employee mental health

Naomi Osaka reacts during her first round match against Romania's Patricia Maria Tig at the 2021 French Open
REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
At an impasse.
  • Heather Landy
By Heather Landy

Executive editor of Quartz


Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open has sparked a vital conversation about mental health in tennis and beyond.

On one side are those who say reasonable accommodations should have, and could have, been made for a star athlete who is being bravely upfront about both her recent history of depression and the anxiety she feels when forced to sit through press conferences that “bring doubt” into her mind. On the other side are those who see talking to the media as a vital aspect of professional sports and worry that freeing a player from her press obligations would uneven the proverbial playing field for other athletes in the tournament.

But what if both sides are right?

Osaka took to social media on May 26 to declare that she wouldn’t be doing the requisite press conferences at Roland Garros this year, tournament fines be damned. And indeed she got fined, before announcing on May 31 that she would pull out of the tournament altogether so that “everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.”

Could Osaka have been accommodated in a way that worked for all involved?

Osaka surely didn’t do any favors for herself by publicly announcing her intentions rather than taking her concerns straight to the people who could address them. (Should you need advice on how to have productive conversations with your boss about mental health, check out our guide to that here.)

On the other hand, the French Tennis Federation isn’t exactly known for its permissiveness—it’s unlikely a direct appeal would have accomplished much. But if it were unwilling to abandon its commitment to having players do media, might the federation have offered other concessions to Osaka? Could it, for example, have suggested new ways to structure the press conferences to make them less daunting? We’ll never know, at least not in time for this tournament.

Employers everywhere should prepare to make accommodations for employee mental health

L’affaire Osaka should be a fascinating case study for employers, who pre-pandemic had been slowly waking up to the mental-health needs of individual employees—and now face the prospect of managing through a global mental-health epidemic. Accommodations will need to be made. But what happens when middle ground can’t be found, when what an employee needs for the sake of mental health is at odds with the needs of the employer?

There will be no easy answers. In Osaka’s case, the result was a leave of absence from her sport’s center stage. Other cases won’t be so clear cut.

We all have learned a lot in the past year, up and down the org chart, about our must-dos and non-negotiables, and the areas in which we can afford to be more flexible or to revamp. The good news is, what might start out as an accommodation to one person or group often brings widespread benefits. Count on this prioritization exercise to not end anytime soon.

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