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On the evening of Monday 26th July 2021, the American gymnast Simone Biles, one of the biggest stars of the Tokyo Olympics, faced what will come to be seen as the biggest decision of her sporting career – whether to go out and perform for her country at the women’s team competition after having experienced a severe panic attack resulting from “a high stress situation,” or to walk away and place her mental health first.

For many, her decision to withdraw from the event may have come as a surprise. Biles was set to break the record books in Tokyo, being one of the most decorated gymnasts in the history of the sport and having qualified for 6 finals in the preceding weeks. Many will remember her joy and enthusiasm at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where she won a staggering 4 gold medals.

But mental health is not something that can be easily discerned from the behaviour we project towards those around us. Beneath Biles’s façade of bubbling success was a darker whirlpool of fear, panic, and anxiety, one that many people faced with high-pressure work environments will be familiar with. Audiences were stunned when she was heard telling a trainer, “I don’t want to do it – I’m done.”

Biles’s withdrawal may have been a loss for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, but at Thrive4Life we see it as a massive win for the cause of mental health. Biles is a shining example of the way no one should be forced to choose between their mental health and the pressure to succeed at whatever cost.

Simone Biles at the 2016 Rio Olympics

Simone Biles at the 2016 Rio Olympics (Image license: CC 2.0, Photo author: Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil)

The American athlete has since opened up about the situation she faced prior to making this monumental decision.

As she has said, “I don’t know if it’s age and I’m a little bit more nervous when I do gymnastics. I feel like I’m also not having as much fun. This Olympic Games I wanted it to be for myself but I came in and I felt like I was still doing it for other people. It hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”

The Olympic Games and Biles’s US team have been overwhelmingly supportive of the athlete’s decision, recognising how sometimes it is necessary to take a step back and remove yourself from the pressure of stardom. When asked about her goal right now, Biles answered, “to focus on my wellbeing. There is more to life than just gymnastics.”

The gymnast’s decision is a reminder to sporting bodies around the world that they cannot continue to push athletes to the extreme without investing in appropriate mental health and wellbeing support.

Yet equally, the decision holds important lessons for the corporate world, as millions of employees find themselves in similar situations where they are constantly forced to meet the expectations of others to the detriment of their mental health.

Our Thrive4Life health and wellbeing specialists are all too familiar with this situation. The false dichotomy between mental health and organisational health has become entrenched into the fabric of many workplace cultures, with employees frequently being the ones who lose out. This false dichotomy is the result of misguided assumptions about what constitutes a healthy, productive workforce.

Biles’s withdrawal from the women’s team competition is a stark reminder of every employee who has experienced similar feelings and made the decision to resign. Her decision signals a call to organisations around the world to invest in appropriate mental health support if they want to prevent a crisis from occurring.

For many organisations, investing in something like mental health may seem like a scary prospect. Where do you begin, and how do you go about putting together a long-term strategy that creates meaningful support? The first step, however, is as simple as making a commitment to change.

Simone Biles’s withdrawal presents itself as a powerful opportunity to reassess your commitments to the cause of mental health. Make the most of this opportunity and get in touch now to enquire how our corporate wellbeing specialists can help you.

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