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Simone Biles is not alone. 1 in 3 workers have taken a step back to prioritize mental health

August 4, 2021 - 7 min read

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The world is still watching Simone Biles. Arguably the greatest female gymnast of all time and set to participate in all six events of the 2021 Olympics gymnastics finals, Simone bowed out of the all-around competition, citing mental health concerns, worry about her performance, her safety, and her impact on the team. After several days of cheering her teammates from the sidelines, Simone did return to competition, winning bronze on the balance beam. 

By definition, a gold medal Olympic athlete is exceptional. Yet Simone’s experience — as a professional who is talented, skilled, and committed but unable to perform at her full and necessary capacity in a given moment — is not exceptional. In fact, the disruptive, sometimes debilitating, effect of anxiety, stress, and performance pressure is a common experience that is only now stepping onto the world stage. In the process, it is catalyzing unprecedented conversation about mental health and mental fitness. 

Being highly educated, technically skilled, or at peak physical condition or ability does little good —  for us or our teams — if we lack mental fitness. In fact, I would argue that mental health and well-being is the most underrated component for individuals to achieve peak performance and success. 

And its relevance for organizations is equally underrated. 

BetterUp Labs has found that, over the past 12 months, 61% of people have felt performance pressure at work. In itself this isn’t necessarily a problem — in work and in life, the pressure to perform isn’t likely to go away (and we probably wouldn’t want it to). However, without the skills and tools to manage it, high- and low-stakes performance pressure can erode the well-being of your people and significantly impact the organization’s ability to perform. 

To examine whether mental health really is getting in the way of our own “Olympic moments” at work, in July 2021 BetterUp Labs conducted a study on 1,693 nationally representative U.S. workers.

What the data say

What we learned was that the recent withdrawals, at peak career moments, from athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka this summer are not unique, whether you are an athlete or in a corporate setting. In fact, 1 in 3 U.S. workers has dropped out from a high-stakes event at work because the pressure felt like too much to handle.

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And the mental health inhibitor doesn’t just pertain to discrete events. It’s also causing withdrawal from or avoidance of ongoing work as well. More than 50% of people say they have avoided taking on a high-stakes project due to the associated pressure, stress, and anxiety. Further, 60% of people reported that they’ve been pushed to “their personal breaking point” at least once due to work pressures. 

The situation, what’s at stake, and our own beliefs and values all play a role in how we prioritize our mental health relative to the demands of the project or event. But the data show that our status quo norms may need some serious re-calibration. 

We asked people about a variety of events and had them identify which events they felt it would be ok to miss due to mental health reasons, and which events they’d push through regardless of their own mental state.

  • When it came to an “important work meeting,” 36% of respondents said it would not be OK to miss it for mental health reasons. 
  • When it comes to bowing out of a championship sports game because of mental health, 24% of people said it would not be acceptable. 
  • 35% said they wouldn’t miss a job interview for mental health reasons.

This really underscores the immense and intense pressure US workers place on themselves to sacrifice for their work — even just a meeting. 

We also wondered whether concerns about “letting their team down” or being judged are what gets in the way of people being able to take action in support of their own mental health as Simone did. We discovered a pattern that indicates that the standards we hold ourselves to may be misaligned with our values and much harsher than the standards we hold others to. Most people (78%) agree with the premise that to perform well one must be mentally fit. In addition, only 2% of respondents said that they would not support a teammate withdrawing from an important event or work project due to mental health. 

In other words, we saw a general discrepancy between the stoic stance of self-sacrifice we adopt for ourselves and the empathetic, supportive stance we offer others. Nearly the entire sample endorsed some degree of support for a teammate prioritizing their own mental health above work. 

This suggests that, despite our internal pressure to “suck it up” or “push through” for the sake of the team or others, we actually have a much longer, more compassionate rope to take care of ourselves and our mental health needs than we think we do.

In fact, when asked about Simone’s decision directly, 83% of respondents said they mostly or fully support her choice.

What it means

First, Olympian or not, we are all human beings, with human needs. No one should be treated as just “the talent” as if talent is something separate from the person. Talent comes wrapped inside complex human beings. Simone is not just a national representative or a symbol, not just a medal winner or even a teammate. She is a whole person, with fears and needs, good days and bad days, and like any other human being, her whole-person needs support to show up at her best. 

Further, it isn’t just about our own Olympic moments. For most of us, low well-being can make even the stress and pressure to perform in meetings and social events too much — everyday people are withdrawing from their own lives, or feel the need to. Yet we don’t talk about it. We feel judged or ashamed for not soldiering through. We don’t recognize that our experience is shared and that we are surrounded by fellow travelers on the daily journey to be better humans.   

My heart goes out to Simone having to make this difficult decision. At the same time, she is making an impact. Her choices are making an impact, one more undeniable crack in the collective consciousness about the importance of mental health, mental fitness, and the connection to performance. I hope that this is a turning point that accelerates the mental health revolution.

We need to approach readiness for peak performance not just as having the technical or leadership skills, but also the critical personal thriving skills necessary to manage stress, anxiety, and pressure before they become overwhelming. We all need to build this mental fitness so that hopefully, when our own “Olympic moment” is upon us, we can step forward, ready and equal to the task. But when we can’t — for whatever reason — our mental fitness can also help us have the self-awareness and self-compassion to give ourselves permission to bow out, regroup, and return to try again another day.

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Published August 4, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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