Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open this week amid a standoff with the tournament over her refusal to attend press conferences brought workplace mental health into the headlines in a big way. Osaka cited longstanding bouts of depression in her announcement, and observers have noted the additional pressures from racism that athletes of color face as well.
For thoughts on what we all can learn from this episode and mental health and race in the workplace, I reached out to Dr. Kali Cyrus, a psychiatrist in Washington DC and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who consults with organizations on managing conflicts stemming from identity differences.
Here is a transcript from my conversation with Cyrus, edited for clarity:
Are there any takeaways for navigating workplace mental health from Naomi Osaka's withdrawal from the French Open?
For Naomi Osaka to just say, 'Fine then. I'm going to leave. I'm not going to do the Open,' it illustrates how much power she actually has. What's more important is the fact that that's going to hurt her, rather than the option of winning the French Open and all of the money and everything that goes with it. That is a huge statement of saying to the system, 'No, you're not going to make me do something I don't want to do. I have autonomy, I have power.' She has a privilege to not necessarily need that money—who knows, I don't know what her financial situation is—but I think that's a really powerful statement, at least compared to workplaces and my field, academia.
I left Yale a few years ago. There've been a number of Black doctors who are leaving academia, and people in general who are considering leaving academia. I think it's because they're valuing their mental health, their life, and their autonomy over staying someplace. Workplaces are going to start seeing people who will make decisions like this. Especially with DEI practitioners, I'm hearing it with them all the time—they're always in some position where the company is making them do these things, but they know they're not really going to change. It's just so exhausting that it's not even worth it.
So I do think that you'll see people who are saying, 'No, I'm not going to come back to work,' or 'You need to actually make these changes.' I don't know that they'll actually stand up to their supervisors or bosses in this way, because companies still hold a significant amount of leverage over employees. But if people are in a position where they can get other jobs and they're unhappy with their workplaces, which are inflexible and trying to play by rigid, old-school standards of 'You have to be this way, we don't care'— people will leave.
So there's a thematic link between Osaka's withdrawal from the French Open and what we're hearing more broadly in workplaces, that workers are considering changing jobs because of the toll of the last year?
There are the people who want to go back to work, but then you've been hearing all these conversations about 'I'm so much more productive at home. This helps with XYZ.' I don't know if you've ever worked for the government, but they make you stay there from nine to six, for no good reason. You're stuck in an office behind a computer. So you can imagine if your office forces you back to work—some people have still had to go in when they don't feel like they need to, and have put themselves at risk. I could see them saying, 'This isn't worth it. I could potentially have another job.' But it depends on all these other factors of having another job.
There's research showing that unhappiness with this lack of freedom or control over your time, at least as it pertains to work, can lead to downstream mental health consequences. There's a big healthcare study done in Britain a while ago that looked at civil servants, comparing the more senior versus more junior working class positions. Those at the bottom had worse healthcare consequences, which is a very basic illustration of not having any sort of perceived control.
Depending on if you have options, people are going to start pulling that trigger and workplaces are either going to need to start being more flexible. I don't know how they're going to pull the trigger; I don't know if people are just going to leave, if they're going to ask for these kinds of things and investments. But there's some antiquated sense of workplace rules that need to change, that people have been fighting for. Generationally, Gen Z has been fighting for those changes.
Are there specific measures that organizations can put in place that allow employees to better navigate mental health issues? Can you avoid the situation where people get to the point of feeling that they have to leave?
It's not as difficult as people make it out to be to enhance mental health options at work. I'm not talking about services—if you give people a flex day, or days, where they can decide if they want to come in or not, it puts control back in the worker's hands. That improves your mental health. And if you're in a company that has meetings every single morning and they're more like attendance checkers, then reducing that to maybe one meeting and actually knowing and trusting your employees that they're doing this work.
Also being more flexible if someone's having a family emergency, or another kind that's unaccounted for. That to me is usually huge when I talk to my patients. So many of them, at least Black, brown, and my LGBTQ patients, might have some sort of family emergency or that morning can't get out of bed if you're depressed. Work might be good in that way, because it forces them out. But imagine if they were able to say, 'Hey, I'm gonna do 12pm to 7pm, and cut out that 9am to 12pm,' or something like that. The workplace can make allowances like that rather than keeping a rigid, 'We have to be here again from nine to six,' type of schedule, and the notion that if your schedule looks different, you are endangering our workplace model.
Are there moments where the needs of the workplace and the mental health needs of workers are actually not compatible? And if so, what do you do?
The thing about anxiety, depression, OCD—any of these conditions—is that whether you're in treatment or not, if you have a job and you need that money, you are going to compensate in some way so that it doesn't show up in the workplace. It's invisible, or it's not as visible as if I broke my arm. You don't know what your workers are already going through. If you think about how many people suffer from depression in general, it's everywhere. You have had employees who are going through mental health concerns day to day, or who have been in a depressive episode; who have called in sick for a couple of days, and maybe came back and seemed a little slow.
People don't call in to say they're depressed. People show up because they know that they have to, because their workplaces aren't open to that kind of thing. So it's already at odds. Also, I don't know how many supervisors— because of stigma and culture, or because it's a mental, emotional sort of situation—think it's okay for you to call in because you have a depressive episode or you're anxious, even if it's taking you away from what you're actually doing at work. It's this attitude of, 'We don't care what's going on with you as long as there is a body behind the computer.'
For some people now, with the pandemic they're getting a little taste of being able to take care of themselves in ways outside of the office. And also just seeing Naomi Osaka say what she has about the French Open, people might start saying, 'No, I'm going to call in sick because I can't go in today.' As in actually putting themselves first or realizing that other people feel this way, so maybe it's okay to start bringing this up. But it's only at odds because we don't have a culture of saying it's okay to be sick, or the flexibility of restructuring so that you can do your work in a way that helps you cope with anxiety.
How can organizations address the mental health toll of systemic racism, for people of all races?
What I'm seeing with the companies that I'm working with right now is this trend where something happens nationally and companies want to respond, and that's the bare minimum. An acknowledgement that what's happening in the real world impacts your workers is huge. That is a bare minimum kind of thing, which is just preposterous to me. As much as I hate these statements that go out, at least it's one step of saying, 'We know this happened.' It doesn't mean that the managers or supervisors have to pull every Black person aside and say, 'How are you doing, George Floyd's verdict came out today', but maybe, 'Hey guys, I understand this is one of these days. If you need to call out, work from home, or take some control over your day, that's one thing that you can do today.'
Depending on how your job is set up, there are different levels of who's working here and what could potentially be done. But have some allowance for what's happening in the external world. Then there's the next layer of what's happening in your office workplace, which is really tough. Offices are realizing that they have a race problem because of the conversations that have been happening. People are pushing the envelope more, but I'm still getting some people who say, 'I don't think we have any problems, but just want to make sure.' You do have a problem, even if you don't think so. I get in touch with their people of color and they're like, 'We have a problem. They don't know. There's only two of us.'
So it's not just on a national day; it's day-to-day having to deal with the stress of racism, transphobia, or homophobia that piles up. It might be one meeting that breaks the camel's back and makes it intolerable. What would be great is some acknowledgement that even if they don't see it, that there's a toll that's happening on people with minority identities day by day. It's not necessarily about giving them a free pass, but rather to acknowledge that maybe we should be giving people some space or flexibility, or the benefit of the doubt that not everyone's operating at 100%.
What have you seen that actually makes a difference in addressing the problem?
Besides hiring diverse people in leadership? It's tough. There are all the DEI answers of mentorship, conversations about it, and training. Honestly, besides hiring, it's maybe being able to either acknowledge outright or to put your leadership in a position where people are open to say, 'This is an issue.' What makes it worse is hostile leadership, and by hostile I mean being even neglectful or ignorant of it. It's been shown in the psychological research that if white people don't say they notice racism, even if we know you're a liberal person who maybe notices it—if you don't say it, then I'm less likely to think that you are an ally.
If your office is all white and maybe one Black person, at least show outwardly that you're someone who's open to talking about it and open to being corrected. And not in a performative sort of way or token way, but one that reduces the tension in the workplace of, 'I'm experiencing this, and I can't do anything about it. I don't have control over changing my environment.' But it's tough to do if your office is all one kind of people.
Why is it so hard to talk about racism, whiteness, and privilege?
It comes down to fragility. It's a couple of things, of which one is feeling like you've done something wrong to hurt somebody. That's a really tough thing for people. Even me: I'm like, 'Feel free to give me feedback if I mess up,' but then if you tell me, it hurts. I still have to deal with that. This is a huge generalization, but if I think of Western culture, the epitome of that is Great Britain. It's being anti-confrontational—I don't know how confrontational they are about things, but we don't have a culture where it's okay to say, 'Hey, don't do this thing,' and it's not the end of the world.
If you don't see your parents disagree or argue, then you don't know that it's okay to argue, and then repair afterwards. Rupture and repair is a normal part of every relationship. So it's a rupture, it feels devastating and intolerable, to feel like you are contributing to racism and oppression. That is really hard to tell, especially if you're now realizing how widespread this is. You're probably worried that every little thing you do—when the truth is that as a white person just being born, you are racist. You are, no matter how much you try, and you have to just cope with making that mistake over and over again. And you're not going to die—it's an emotional thing you have to get through.
The other part is a personal feeling of undeservingness and integrity, which is the privilege side. It's having to acknowledge that you benefit in some ways and feeling like you're being told you don't deserve it, or that it means something about who you are and how hard you work.
What are some strategies for bridging the Black/non-Black divide in the workplace?
I've thought about this a lot, and my viewpoint has changed over the years. Ultimately I don't think that on a large scale, we'll ever bridge it. But perhaps I take a view that one-on-one, you can reduce differences. I know this personally from having white friends in my life who are completely, completely different. They probably don't have any other Black friends, but I have been since whatever age and we're able to get through this. But I think that it's trust. It's hard to get at that in the workplace; it's knowing that you can give someone the benefit of the doubt and they won't have some weird power over you. If we are employees at the same level, going through the same experience, and I'm Black and you're white, then we have a better chance of bridging that divide because we can commiserate over things that we know. If we've spent however many days and weeks together, you can imagine what kind of friendship develops; you realize similarities that you have outside of race and you bond on personality. This is why I really love intersectionality. And not just intersectional, but multiple—maybe we both like electro pop music or funk rock, these kinds of things that transcend and are outside of stereotypes.
That's hard to get to, if you're my supervisor. It's also hard to get to in the workplace, because people don't personally open up. One-on-one can present these opportunities, but I actually think that it's incumbent on white people to try to get to know the people of color. Because for people of color, it's constantly reinforced that you can't trust white people. It's usually that someone comes into my life who shows themselves to be trustworthy. We have all these similarities and it works out. I think it's possible in that way—then it's okay if that person makes a mistake or says, 'Can I ask you about your hair?' You have a rapport with them, you know that they're not necessarily tokenizing you in this way. It doesn't bother you as much, or you might be able to say, 'You can't ask people that' and they'll say, 'Oh, I didn't know that.' There are ways that you can then have that rupture and repair, but that takes trust.
That's really hard to do with stiff workplaces that don't have a lot of people of color. I do these ten-week workshops with organizations, and every week is a new lesson or hallmark. Sometimes I pair senior and junior people, or you have to draw your neighborhood, etc. You have to do all these things to get to know your boss and people personally, and share in ways that you don't normally have to. The number one takeaway was, 'Even though we have work happy hours, I really enjoyed getting to know my coworkers.'
Research suggests that one-on-one connections are, as you're saying, a much more reliable foundation for trust in a group than just doing a 6pm group Zoom happy hour....
Where everyone lives is segregated probably these days, too. I think about cornfields in Indiana or something like that and how segregated it is—how do you even get to know people who are gay or trans or Black? Then you go to work or school and it's such a great opportunity, but work and school aren't doing that now. If you live in someplace in New York, that's still super segregated. You don't have any Black friends. How do you ever bridge these divides? We're forced to because we work in all white places. We have to have some level of cordiality. That's why I think it's incumbent, if you are somebody who wants to call yourself an ally or anti-racist, for you to get to know people in a non-performative way.
The workplace is where most Americans are exposed to people unlike themselves. It's both a challenge for the reasons we've been talking about, but it's also an opportunity if we can fix the workplace.
I think about this with schools, as well. I went to a magnet school, which is where they put a school in a poor neighborhood and bus in all these white kids. Many of my friends were in other programs, and then I'm in this science program. That's how I got to know these white Jewish girls in West Palm Beach, and that's how they got to know me. I don't know how many Black friends they have right now, but we've been childhood friends. And even just being forced to see each other every day is something. So if you think about the band-aids and the rules that workplaces have, and I suppose going back to work is one of those things, but how do you build that into a workplace? Those values have to come from the top. And I don't know that leaders at the top think about racial integration in this way.
Last year there was at least more discussion of race in workplaces following George Floyd's murder. There were DEI initiatives that were put in place then, but I'm hearing that as people return to the workplace in the coming months, most of those initiatives probably won't have progressed as much as people would hope, and there's a risk of even deeper disillusionment. What is your sense?
I'm anticipating that workplaces are going to be unprepared. If you think about the people who've been going into work, they've been having to grapple with these things happening every single day. So you can imagine now coming back, they're going to be looking for outside consultants. Or their HR, whoever does this, is going to have to step up. In general, whatever they do for DEI is going to need to move two steps forward, which means either creating it or hiring people who are going to come in and do something different. The DEI field right now—it's the hot industry to do.
People are going to go back to work and these issues will be on everyone's sleeves. Workplaces are going to be more tense and offices are going to have to do something. But I don't know that they're going to know what to do or how to handle it. It's going to be tense and bad for a little while. Knowing preemptively that this is going to be a thing and trying to get ahead of it is ultimately the best idea, but I don't think that people are going to just keep this to themselves anymore. Like with the Naomi Osaka stuff, people are a little more emboldened. They're upset with the lack of control, because it's so bad now. It's not like you can tolerate it like before. Either you've had a taste of something different, or you're like, 'No, I know everybody's talking about this and if we're not talking about it in this office, something's wrong with us.'
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