Article

Athletes Are Human too—Olympic Lessons for the ‘Corporate Athlete’

By Michelle Taylor-Jones
September 28, 2021

We are witnessing a unique moment in sports as athletes including Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and Sha’Carri Richardson are speaking out about mental health. It’s clear that the pressure to “super perform” has a disproportionate impact on women—especially Black women—in pursuit of the podium while at the top of their game. Their bravery in sharing their own mental health challenges is an inspiration to us all and can also be a catalyst for change not just in sports, but in the corporate world, too.  

Black women in the corporate world, including myself, know too well the pressure to perform as “super athletes” to be recognized. And with the experience of the past 18 months, including the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, and the ongoing civil unrest in the US, many Black women who are heads of households and “corporate athletes” have an added pressure to be mentally tough and persevere through incredibly challenging circumstances. 

Yet, despite our efforts, Black women still aren’t recognized in the workplace on a level playing field with our colleagues. According to a 2020 Seramount study, 52 percent of Black women are considering leaving their companies within the next two years, citing the lack of inclusion as a key driver. 

At a time when it’s clear that diverse teams are high-performing teams, an exodus of these talented women is a business challenge we must all come together to solve. A global survey from Deloitte showed nearly 82 percent of women surveyed said that their lives had been disrupted negatively by the pandemic, and nearly 70 percent of women who experienced these disruptions were concerned their career growth may be limited.  

The question therefore becomes: How can organizations support our “corporate athletes” so we can achieve our best performance together as a team? 

It’s time to treat mental health the same way we do physical health—and that means investing in preventative care, in treatment and recovery if our colleagues should fall ill. In Canada, we at Manulife offer $10,000 per colleague each year to support their mental health, and that of their family.  We know that removing the financial burden endemic to effective preventative care enables wider access and is one meaningful way we can support our teammates.

Encourage mindfulness to improve wellbeing. Mindfulness is practiced differently by everyone, but companies can share resources and encourage employees to make time for their wellbeing. Manulife recently hosted a global meditation session together with our partners at Headspace which we hope will spark greater interest in the practice amongst our colleagues.  

Boost the conversation. Whether the conversation on mental health is in the arena, on a track, or in an office, there are tools and opportunities to break down the stigma around mental health to make every day better. Bringing teams together and encouraging dialogue between colleagues through employee resource groups can also help in giving individuals ownership for their own learnings. Aim to foster a diverse and inclusive workplace by bringing together marginalized groups and allies to encourage meaningful personal and professional development opportunities. It’s also key to speak up if you notice assumptions being made about your colleagues’ needs, work interests and competencies. 

Diversity is not just a key enabler, but when done right, is a differentiator for business success. It drives innovation, collaboration and high performance. Diversity sets the foundation for inclusion, and inclusion provides the opportunity for better mental health for those who are marginalized and seek a sense of belonging. This, in turn, leads to healthy work environments, successful business practices, and, ultimately, a winning team.

About the Authors

Michelle Taylor Jones
Michelle Taylor-Jones
VP of Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
ManuLife and John Hancock