Inspirational Woman: Emma Mainoo | Head of Mental Health Practice, Utopia

Emma Mainoo

Emma is the head of the mental health practice at Utopia, a culture change business that creates more purposeful, inclusive and entrepreneurial cultures for clients.

Utopia’s top-to-bottom, boardroom-to-factory floor approach has worked with household names including Coca-Cola European Partners, Google, Schneider Electric, Spotify, and Universal Music.

Emma worked at senior level with global brands for a number of years, which brought great professional reward, but also anxiety and depression. In 2012, she began a healing journey through therapy, self care practices and alternative healing; and in 2018, she decided to share her story of hope and survival through the creation of Surviving Sundays, a storytelling platform that offers hope and inspiration to anyone who is experiencing poor mental health. Today, the blog has extended to an events series with Soho House and a podcast.

In 2019 Emma became a qualified Mental Health First Aid Instructor, and now trains others to become Mental Health First Aiders using the MHFA program and her own lived experience to offer rich learning, that enables course delegates to spot the signs of poor mental health and offer solutions within the workplace and community at large.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I started leading the new mental health practice at Utopia, a culture change business, in January. When it launched, we obviously had no idea of what would unfold this year – it’s been a really poignant time to launch this new part of the business.

I’m a creative at heart, and my background is in the media, marketing and branding space. I was in senior positions in a pretty lucrative, attractive industry with big budgets and high-profile people. It’s an all-go, 24/7 environment and in the years I worked in it full-time, I looked like I was ‘living my best life’ – but I was also battling depression and anxiety.

The way that world – and most other industries, actually – is structured means you can’t afford to show you’re struggling. The workplace culture revolves around presenteeism, overworking – a go hard or go home environment. I finally realised that, for my own sake, I had to leave.

That was the impetus for me to launch my own platform, Surviving Sundays, in 2017: a place to share my own and others’ mental health journeys.

Surviving Sundays opened opportunities for me to address issues surrounding wellbeing in businesses, offer an empathetic voice to others and connect to pioneers challenging the stigma around mental health – including Nadya Powell and Daniele Fiandaca, Utopia’s co-founders.

My role at Utopia, and the mental health practice as a whole, is to create environments where people feel like they belong, and feel happy and healthy working in. This means educating leaders and helping them understand the impact of exclusion, toxic work environments, biases – I create open, safe spaces to frankly discuss what they can be doing better and how they can get there. This environment of psychological safety ensures the changes stick beyond a tick-box, and drive deep, long-term change.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I can’t say I did. I’ve arrived at the fortunate position I’m in now because of my lived experience.

The bustle and glamour of agency life were powerful distractions, but distractions none-the-less. Being so entrenched in my work caused my mental health to fall by the wayside, and it wasn’t until I put everything on pause that my perspective shifted. It put me outside the bubble, and I could see the toll stress was taking on me.

That has led to positives: that awareness has meant that I now get to create long-lasting, authentic change for businesses and individuals. Most of us spend five days a week in the workplace, and we all deserve to feel happy there. I’m now doing a job I was born for, so I’d consider it a happy accident!

What challenges have you faced along the way?

Having reached senior leadership roles has meant I’ve often been the ‘only’ one: the only woman, the only person of colour. I’ve faced unconscious biases and microaggressions untold times, and they don’t always present themselves in ways you’d expect. When I worked in fashion, my assistant would often be mistaken for my boss. Other times I’d be invited onto a pitch to tick a diversity box, to brown the team up.

Another roadblock has been helping organisations realise that building an active, positive mental health culture has to go further than a yoga class on World Mental Health Day. The impact of opening up the discourse around mental health can’t be understated, because being proactive in this area protects both employees and businesses – 12.4% of sick days in 2018 were attributed to mental health.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

It’s been a turbulent 2020 for everyone, but my biggest achievement has been what the Utopians – my work family – have accomplished this year.

Interactive, face-to-face workshops were the glue of our business, so lockdown meant our entire model was thrown off balance. We had to completely pivot overnight to save our business.

But everyone at Utopia got stuck in, helped make that shift to virtual, and steered us to our most successful quarter as a business to date. Even though we’re doing it remotely, seeing the impact we have on clients and having authentic conversations with them on a daily basis is a huge personal reward.

Despite the challenges, it’s amazing to see employers start to reach out and genuinely want to put inclusion and mental wellbeing at the core of their strategies.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I’ve seen the value of mentorship on both sides of the coin. It’s been essential to my own journey, and I’ve seen how it changes the lives of others. I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.

Mentorship doesn’t have to be a financial exchange, nor does it involve being psychoanalysed in an office chair. It’s about having consistent, unwavering support. Loneliness and shame are two traits born out of poor mental health, and they make those suffering reluctant to reach out. Having someone to proactively check in, listen to you and signpost what to do next is invaluable.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Ten years ago, success would’ve meant something very different to what it means to me now. Success was getting Kate Moss in the showroom, winning an industry award – that sort of stuff.

Now, success is having a job I’m passionate about and using my lived experience to drive tangible change and help people. So in that sense, the thing driving that success is knowing I’ll be listened to, being my full self and pulling no punches in a role I love.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

If I were to meet my fourteen-year-old self, I’d let her know that she belongs (not that she’d have believed me!). Presenteeism played a huge role in my early career, and I would have felt more comfortable and authentic if I felt like I truly belonged, at my core.

I spent years believing my struggles with anxiety would become office gossip, so I’d compensate through presenteeism and parties. In fact, the title of Surviving Sundays comes from the dread of returning to work every Monday, because colleagues would ask how my weekend was and I’d have to lie.

So, I’d tell my younger self that she won’t have to hide forever. There are safe spaces, there are others with similar experiences who will listen, and there’s a place for you.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

The global pandemic has affected everyone in unique ways. The next challenge is to make it understood that just because you don’t have a mental health diagnosis, doesn’t mean you’re not struggling with your mental health. There are very real anxieties over finances, health and our loved ones across all levels of society. The sooner people realise this and act on it, the conversation around mental health will become even easier to facilitate.


WeAreTheCity has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Cherie Blair, Paula Radcliffe MBE, Caprice Bourret, Anna Williamson and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here

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