The hidden topic: why do we struggle to discuss mental health?

February 2018
Emma at Sightsavers.
Emma Mamo from Mind during her presentation at Sightsavers.
1 in 4
people will experience a mental health problem this year

“Mental health is the same as physical health – it exists on a spectrum, which we move up and down from good to poor for any number of reasons.”

This was one of the opening statements from Emma Mamo of mental health charity Mind, who came to talk to Sightsavers staff in November 2017 about how to create and support a mentally healthy workplace. The talk was arranged by Sightsavers’ Social Inclusion Working Group, as part of its programme of lunchtime speakers to enable staff to gain wider insights into disability and inclusion.

Emma explained how mental health is a hidden topic: people don’t want to talk about it to admit that they are struggling, yet “one in four people will experience a mental health problem in any given year. The World Health Organisation has predicted that depression will be the second most common cause of ill health worldwide by 2020.”

According to Emma, one in six workers is experiencing anxiety, depression or stress, with people reporting that work is the single most stressful factor in their lives. But she also said 40 per cent of employers believe that staff with a mental health problem are a risk, especially if they are in public-facing roles.

One problem with mental health is that it is not discussed. Right from school age, we are taught about physical health but not mental health. The result, Emma explained, is a “silence around the issues, and a real gap about what we can do to stay well and how to find support when we’re struggling”. She added that the silence feeds the stigma around mental health because people are afraid to talk about it in case they say the wrong thing.

Paralympian Georgie Bullen holds a yellow sign containing the words: 'Join us at, #inthepicture'.

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Yet there are many steps an employer can take to support staff, such as ensuring employees don’t have long working hours without any breaks. At Mind, for example, the senior management team has introduced a policy that no one is permitted to send work-related emails between 8pm and 8am, unless in an emergency, and staff aren’t allowed to email colleagues that are on holiday or off sick.

Emma is a keen advocate of taking lunch breaks, and said she was “quite envious” of our kitchen and café area at Sightsavers, where staff can get away from their desks to prepare food and eat in a relaxed atmosphere alongside their colleagues.  She then talked about the importance of exercise and taking part in physical and social activities, explaining that Mind holds a school sports day event every year in which everyone takes part, including the “chief exec doing the wheelbarrow race”.

Emma’s final point was about the importance of maintaining your work/life balance and the activities you care about outside of work to help keep yourself healthy.

The talk was really well attended and the informal feedback showed that the topic resonated with a lot of staff.


Sightsavers logoKate Bennell is the organisational inclusion coordinator at Sightsavers UK. Severely sight impaired herself, she coordinates the Social Inclusion Working Group and champions accessibility.


On reflection

“Emma’s assertion that everyone’s mental health exists on a sliding scale from good to poor was particularly interesting: I’d never really considered this before, so hearing the talk made me realise that I don’t always pay attention to this side of my health. It made me aware that my mental health needs to be valued and nurtured along with my physical health, and that this is a worthwhile endeavour for the years ahead – worth considering when I make my new year’s resolutions.

I thought Mind’s sports day event sounded like a great idea. I’m quite good at taking regular breaks at work, and know that from my own perspective this is important. I’ve also been taking a basic sign language course at work – as well as helping me professionally, it’s a great antidote to sitting behind my computer.”

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