Cross Country Checkup·Q&A

What Simone Biles's Olympic decision can teach us about supporting people at work

Margot Ross-Graham, principal and owner of Sandbar Coaching and Consulting in Edmonton, told Cross Country Checkup that Simone Biles's "courageous decision" could make way for more conversations about mental health in the workplace. 

Workplace consultant Margot Ross-Graham says high-performing workers may need more than typically offered

Team USA gymnast Simone Biles looks on during Women's Qualification on day two of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Biles withdrew from several competition events at the Games. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

While most people don't experience Olympic-sized pressure at the office, consultant Margot Ross-Graham says workplace leaders can take a lesson from Simone Biles.

The Team USA gymnast backed out of several events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, citing a need to focus on her well-being. Biles says she is dealing with something known in gymnastics as 'the twisties', a mental block that causes an athlete to feel disoriented.

Biles, who is the world's most-decorated gymnast, was applauded by fellow competitors and fans alike for her openness. The move has also renewed conversations about athletes' mental health.

Ross-Graham, principal and owner of Sandbar Coaching and Consulting in Edmonton, told Cross Country Checkup host Ian Hanomansing that Biles's "courageous decision" could make way for more conversations about mental health in the workplace. 

Here is part of that conversation.

As a workplace consultant, what do you make of [Biles's] decision?

It's interesting to say that you're proud of somebody that you've never met, but I would say that I feel really proud for her and proud of her courageous decision that she made. But what I see in that is somebody who finally had the support of herself or her peers — or somebody — to give her the confidence to do what was right. 

And in the workplace, if I draw a parallel ... we put a lot of pressure on ourselves, but also on our peers and our employees, and maybe not give them the tools and the support that they need in order to manage that pressure. 

High-performing people are high-performing people in every aspect of their lives. And sometimes as workplaces, we forget that your highest-performing person might also be the most struggling of them all. Her doing that gave a message to everybody: do what's best for you.

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When you talk about the supports that people might need who are high performing, what sort of supports are you talking about?

I'd say a variety of things. One of them is the 80/20 rule of everything. Twenty per cent of your difficult situations get the most support. 

So the 20 per cent worst performers, they get the most support. The high performers get a little bit of recognition. And the average performers get regular support. 

What I see that happens in workplaces is it's so much more challenging to deal with difficult employee situations, so we tend to focus less on the really high-performing people. 

As managers and leaders in companies, we don't have those really tough conversations with them that say, how are you actually doing? I know that I'm giving you all kinds of things to achieve, and I see how proud you are of those successes and you continue to produce. But how are you doing and what are the things that are happening in your world that are helping you do that?

And so one last question for that Simone Biles in the workplace — the high performer who gets asked by his or her boss, how are you doing? How are things really going? And they don't want to answer honestly when it's not going well. What do you say to that high performer?

In a workplace, what I'd say to them [is] if you're not comfortable talking to your boss about it because you don't want to let them down or be perceived as weak, talk to a peer, talk to a friend. 

One of the great things about workplaces is you usually have somebody in the workplace who really makes you feel safe. Talk to that individual about what's going on, and maybe ask them for some support or some help. 

But I think the message I would leave to employees and workplaces based on what Simone did is: what she did took courage and conviction and it would have been hard. But just think how proud you are of what she did. 

Translate that to how proud you can be of yourself and your peers when you see them doing that in the workplace as well.


Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Ashley Fraser. This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

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