No is also an Answer/The Power of No

When it comes to mental health, let’s take our cues from the likes of super-athletes Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, two incredible young women who aren’t scared to say ‘No’ when the going gets too tough and their personal wellbeing is at stake.

October 2021

Mental health

In a New York Times article titled “Simone Biles and the Art of Perfection,” author Juliet Macur refers to Biles as “the greatest athlete of all time.” And no one can argue, Simone Biles “revolutionised” the sport – she not only has four gymnastic skills named after her but has won a total of 32 World Championship and Olympic medals (combined).

So, when America’s sweetheart pulled out of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics earlier this year, it caused a massive furore. Who walks out of the Olympics? Especially when you are the reigning champion? Simone Biles, that’s who.

As reported in BBC News, Biles said after a shaky performance of what’s referred to as “the twisties,” she knew she was in trouble and decided to quit the Olympics and focus on her mental health.

“We have to protect our minds and our bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do,” she told reporters, “We’re not just athletes. We’re people at the end of the day, and sometimes you just have to step back.”

At just 24 years old, Biles has an incredible sense of self, and it’s not surprising that her attitude towards self-care sent shockwaves through the sporting world, reaching beyond the boundaries of her chosen profession. As the cover of New York magazine declared, “Simone Biles Chose Herself.”

Another young athlete who made waves earlier this year, is tennis champion Naomi Osaka who pulled out of the French Open citing mental health issues.

“It’s OK. To Not Be OK,” shouted the TIME magazine headline, together with a strong but pensive image of Naomi on the cover.

Indeed, the ability of both athletes to prioritise their mental health is a lesson for all of us. It all comes down to boundaries and the ability to say No.

As a best-selling author and vulnerability guru, Brene Brown writes, “Daring to set boundaries is all about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.”

We all battle with boundaries in life and the workplace, and for some, it’s harder than for others to say no.

Brown also says, “When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you are not saying ‘no’ to yourself.”

When your NO is someone else’s YES.

“Setting your boundaries and sticking to them is hard,” admits Rose Mamabolo, WDBIH’s Business Manager, who wears multiple hats during any one workday.  “It’s difficult to say ‘no’, because one’s instinct is to be helpful, to be part of making things happen – but it’s impossible to be all things to all people and to be true to yourself.”

She says the small team at WDBIH has worked together for a long time and respect each other’s boundaries, while picking up the load when one member of the team can’t deal with a particular issue.  Trust is a very important part of teamwork, as is being able to delegate.

“Sometimes your ‘no’, becomes someone else’s ‘yes’,” says Rose.

WDBIH CEO, Faith Khanyile firmly believes that taking a break is essential to one’s wellbeing. She recently took a few months’ sabbatical to recharge her batteries.

“Taking time out is essential, and we all need to do it – but as I have found coming back to work: the minute things are ‘back to normal’ the same demands are there, and it’s very tricky to not fall back into patterns that don’t align with your wellbeing. Prioritising mental health is key, sometimes it’s easier said than done but after all it is said and done, if you are not strong mentally, it is very difficult for you to function at your best; therefore prioritising mental health in my view is not a nice to have, it is essential for overall well- being, longevity, achieving balance in your life and high performance. I think it’s about being consistent and intentional in terms of what you can and can’t take on and saying No. Being truthful with yourself is very important.”

As a young business owner and digital strategist, Lihle Mgaga works closely with the WDBIH team on social media marketing (as well as servicing several other clients). She says there are many tricky areas for young women in business who take on too much and end up burning out very quickly.

“Getting your priorities right is key, and you need to decide what to focus on from the very beginning, or else one ends up being distracted and trying to please everyone, and as a result – doing a bad job.”

Lihle also says that ones’ cultural upbringing also comes into play when you are a young person saying no to an older boss/manager or client. “It’s not so clear cut as just saying no. Many of my friends and I struggle with it, even though sometimes turning something down is the right thing for me at the time. Even if it creates some anxiety. And I know that’s something to work on going forward.”


Trust is a very important part of teamwork, as is being able to delegate.

Calling it Like it Is

WDBIH’s Wendy Groenewald works closely with the WDBIH interns and the young people who attend the various WDBIH leadership programmes. She says she is very impressed at the forthright nature of many young people she comes across.

“Growing up, we had what I call a ‘Disease to Please’, but I do see a different and perhaps a more healthy attitude from the young people who come through our doors and those who work within our leadership development initiatives – they are focussed on what they want, and their future, and are clear in expressing their needs, which I find very refreshing!” says Wendy.

“Communication and emphathy is key to mental health in the workplace,” says Rose Mamabolo, and the tight but dynamic team that make up WDBIH, regularly check in with each other – something that has become regular practice since the early days of the Covid-19 lockdown.


Communication and emphathy is key to mental health in the workplace


“We don’t get it right all of the time,” says Rose, “especially when you are swept up in the day-to-day deliverables and things are very pressurised, but it’s important to check in with each other…. and I have to remind myself quite regularly to check in with myself – to recognise how stressed I am and why, and try and find a solution. Sometimes just taking a few minutes to acknowledge what is happening around me makes a difference.”

Faith Khanyile says, “Saying ‘no’ to others is sometimes the easy part. Saying ‘no’ to the voice in your head is another challenge altogether, but I am getting better at it.”

She says putting perfection in the corner is something she has learned over the years, and being kinder to herself.

“When I look at the strength of young women in the world and their ability to call it like it is. I am very inspired. Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka are just two examples of extraordinary young women who refuse to compromise at the highest levels. We can all learn from that.”