Naomi Osaka Shows That Prioritizing Yourself Over A Job Is Still A Radical Act

You may not be an elite tennis athlete, but setting boundaries is a hard decision you'll face at work, too.

The hardest yet most rewarding lesson you may learn in your career is to choose yourself over a job.

Take the latest example from Naomi Osaka. In a bold move, the four-time Grand Slam singles champion withdrew from the French Open on Monday, citing her mental health.

Osaka had previously announced that she would boycott press interviews at the Open in order to take care of her well-being. “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” she wrote on social media last week.

As a result of the boycott, French Open officials fined her $15,000 and the Grand Slam board sternly warned that she could be suspended from future tennis tournaments if she continued to skip news conferences.

Instead of caving to the pressure and following Grand Slam guidelines that are worsening her mental health, Osaka chose a third option: She took herself out of the Open and refused to work under the set conditions.

Osaka revealed in a post on social media that she has dealt with long bouts of depression since the 2018 U.S. Open and believes that a leave of absence from tennis is her best option right now.

By opting out of the tournament for her mental health, she prioritized her needs and set a hard boundary between her job and the time and energy it can extract from her. Her decision struck a nerve with many people:

Why choosing yourself over corporate interests is the hardest, best decision you can make for your career

You may not be the reportedly highest-paid female athlete in the world, but if you have worked long enough in demanding environments, you’ve probably faced this question: Do I sacrifice my well-being for my boss’s or my own ambition?

Too many people end up choosing to put their heads down and power through for their jobs, and end up working themselves sick. When you always work through the lunch break, on the weekends and at home with your family, you are putting your health in mortal danger. Working long hours accounted for about 745,000 deaths worldwide in 2016. Overwork and viewing work not just as a paycheck but as a calling that is more important than the rest of your life is an unfortunate tradition in American society. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson defines it as workism, “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose.“

When Osaka refused to sacrifice her mental health for the job, it was a refusal to participate in this status quo. “Naomi Osaka’s action reminded us that we always have choices even when the demands of our work suggest we do not,” said psychologist Cicely Horsham-Brathwaite.

When you go against the tide, you can face derision from critics who call you selfish and a “diva,” as people said about Osaka when she announced her decision. In Osaka’s case, setting this boundary also cost her thousands of dollars and the potential of prize money, too. For workers who do not have a financial safety net, telling a boss “no” can be even more draining and scary.

But it’s a powerful decision. For Osaka, setting a boundary for her health meant opting out of a major tournament. For professionals who are not tennis stars, it could mean setting limits on when you will work or refusing certain assignments. Choosing to prioritize mental health at work could also mean larger individual actions, like using your organization’s employee assistance program, taking a medical leave of absence, or talking with your boss about going to therapy during work hours or switching to part time. It can also mean taking on the system itself and teaming up with co-workers to take collective action about the working conditions that are causing poor mental health.

Horsham-Brathwaite, who works with high performers, said she often sees clients who view well-being and job performance as an either/or choice in which they only get to choose one. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and taking care of yourself can help your job and your well-being in the long-run.

“Your well-being, your body is more important than anything that you do or accomplish,” Horsham-Brathwaite said. “It’s important to think of oneself as a whole person. If it’s that binary, it is either ‘I’m a worker or I’m not.’ ... But well-being is across different areas, and included in that is the quality of our relationships, how satisfied we feel in our work is another, our spiritual well-being, our physical well-being. These are all components, and over-reliance on one component leads to imbalance.”

Prioritizing well-being is a lesson I personally learned late in my career. I once worked long shifts at a job that I should have quit, because I believed my hard work would be rewarded. I wish I had felt more empowered to set a boundary for when my boss could access me. I wish I had learned sooner that taking care of yourself is the biggest reward of all. Osaka recognized this much sooner ― she’s only 23 ― and we are all better off for her pioneering example.

“I think that she is charting a path that is not one we are used to seeing,” Horsham-Brathwaite said. “So for me, it’s a wake-up call and a reminder to continue to practice the things that I preach ... use my time, take it and actually take breaks.”

At a young age, Osaka sees the value in herself beyond what corporate interests earn from her play. By speaking up and setting boundaries for her mental health, she is charting a new path for herself, the tennis stars who will come after her, and all the fans who see themselves in her. Right on.

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