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In this episode of the ICAEW Student Insights podcast, host Jag Dhaliwal learns how trainee accountants can make a plan for their well-being and recognise signs of stress and pressure.


Jag Dhaliwal


  • Paul Guess, Case Management Officer, caba
  • Hannah Macdonald, Founder, Accountancy Hub


Ed Adams


Jag Dhaliwal: Hello and welcome to ICAEW Student Insights. My name is Jag Dhaliwal and this podcast is all about learning how the world of work is changing for finance professionals. Today we’re talking about well-being. Being a trainee accountant is a busy time in your life, juggling work, studying exams, as well as a social life. And it’s important to proactively manage your mental health. In particular, it’s vital to have strategies in place for when things don’t quite go your way.

Paul Guess: The key to all of this is self awareness. It’s taking time to check in with yourself.

Hannah Macdonald: If you have people working in an organisation with poor well-being, you can have very poor outcomes.

JD: To find out more, I’m joined by Paul Guess, Case Management Officer at ICAEW charity caba, and later today we’ll hear from Hannah Macdonald, an accountant who runs the well-being website Accountancy Hub. Hi, Paul. Thanks for coming into the studio today.

PG: Thank you for having me.

JD: So, can you just give us a bit of an introduction to caba.

PG: Happy to. We are the supporting charity for the ICAEW. We have a large focus on supporting the student population, the ACA students. We can do all sorts of things. We have online training; webinars; longer, shorter form; we can offer advice on benefits; on debt; on if you’re a carer; we also offer partnering services for things like career coaching and legal advice. If there are financial issues, we can offer shortfall grants, which are means tested. We also do energy payments. The area I mostly focus on is our counselling support. And we work with a number of national organisations, some of them are very well known, to provide all sorts of counselling. Most of it is presently done by telephone and video. There are some online resources as well. We’re also now looking into more ways we can support neurodivergent clients, obviously very important in the student base. So we’re constantly exploring how we can expand our service. And we’re very proud of what we’ve achieved so far.

JD: Wow. So it sounds like there really is something for everyone.

PG: We’d certainly like to think so. Yeah.

JD: So you’ve been with caba for five years now. So what are some common challenges accountants, and particularly trainees, face when it comes to their well-being?

PG: I think the most prevalent one, the one that I see on almost a daily basis, is balancing work life with personal life.

JD: I can absolutely resonate with that one.

PG: I can believe you. And then we’re also looking at the fact that we’re living in somewhat uncertain times. I’ve got some figures from the World Health Organisation that indicate that there’s been a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression since COVID. And that’s worldwide. And we do, we look after clients all around the world, so this is obviously very important to us as an organisation. MIND indicate that as much as a third of adults and young people have been feeling much worse since March 2020.

JD: So do you think that’s as a result of, of course, the pandemic, but then moving out of that and going more into then hybrid working? Do you think that’s maybe had an impact as well?

PG: I think they all have. I don’t think there’s any one particular core to this. Part of it is, especially amongst the ACA student population, we’re looking at a generation who have a greater insight into mental health as a subject. They are more aware of what’s going on, of what they should be doing, of how they should be feeling or shouldn’t be feeling. With that awareness comes a desire to do something about it. So we have seen an extraordinary period of time, which has caused stresses and anxiety beyond those we would have considered possible. We have seen that in partnership with the normal day-to-day, working out what the new normal is, and with hybrid working as well because that – the world has changed. And it’s not going back. It’s presented us with huge opportunities. But it does carry the difficulties and the challenges of adapting to that new way of working, to that new way of living.

JD: So how can our students make a clear separation between, kind of, working from home and then their personal lives – is that important to do?

PG: Absolutely. You can’t do the same thing. You need to have that separation and it is now more difficult than ever. The best, the luxury, would be of course have a dedicated space to do this work from, but we can’t all afford or access a dedicated room to set up an office. We’re working from our kitchen tables, our dining rooms, our bed, you know you roll out of bed and you’re literally at your desk. The recommendations I would give are things like if you can’t get that dedicated space, change the scenery. If you work from a laptop, when you come to finish, put it away, don’t leave it out, because it’s there as a constant reminder for the rest of the day that work is there. Change the scenery, make it look different, put a new plant pot there. So, I don’t know, make some small changes, just to make sure that you are distinguishing between this space being a work space and this space being a home space. And I think another thing, very important, is to define and respect your own boundaries. Set a time limit when you are going to finish work and finish it. If you keep breaking promises to yourself, if you say I will finish at seven o’clock tonight, and then you carry on working till eight, until nine, you’re telling your brain you can’t trust yourself. And that can have a major impact on your mental health as well.

JD: Never thought about it in that way. And then would that apply to, say, lunch breaks as well?

PG: Absolutely. I cannot stress how important it is to take time away. Even if it is half an hour, 10 minutes, whatever, just break that state of concentration.

JD: Yeah, you come back with the answers as well sometimes.

PG: Yeah, it’s possible.

JD:  As accountants, if we know there’s a busy or stressful period coming up like exams, is there anything that we can do to proactively prepare ourselves and manage our well-being?

PG: You might be surprised at just how much you can do. The first thing I’d say is develop healthy habits – now, don’t wait. Get on with it. And it’s the classics – it’s exercise. But I’m not saying go down the gym, I’m saying find an exercise that you enjoy, go for walks, swimming, whatever it is. If you find an exercise you will, you can enjoy, you are far more likely to stick at it. Eat healthily. These are things people will have heard time and time again, but there is a reason for that because they do work. And sleep. This is the most important one, in my opinion: making sure you get good sleep. It can seem counterproductive. If you go to bed at 10 o’clock, well, you could have done another hour or two of studying. But it’s not about the amount of time, it’s the quality of the time. Studying, working on a tired mind is not productive. Get the sleep and everything else feels better. Your mental health does improve with good sleep.

JD: Anything else other than exercise, diet and sleep?

PG: One of the most pertinent things, I think, towards the ACA population is access arrangements. If you know that you will require access arrangements for your exam, so extra time, whatever that might look like, speak to the ICAEW student support team as soon as you can. Don’t leave it. If you’re aware of this beforehand, you can better plan your exam schedule. You don’t feel compelled to take the first exam that comes along because you’re not ready for it yet. It’s not suitable.

JD: I’m really interested to know whether there are any signs that you can pick up early on, if you are experiencing any kind of significant stress and pressure?

PG: The thing is there are so many potential signs. It’s things like changing mood. Are you eating differently? Are your energy levels different? The things you’re normally interested in, have you just got no drive for them? And then do you find yourself using stimulants or things like alcohol more often? Also, the other thing to bear in mind is what messaging are you getting from other people. Are people saying to you, asking are you alright, or you’ve changed? It’s very easy to get very defensive about that, but perhaps the best thing to do is to take a moment, stop and say: ‘Why are you asking me that?’.

JD: Yeah.

PG: The key to all of this is self-awareness. It’s taking time to check in with yourself, see where you are, because an analogy I’ve always liked – and I don’t know if this is scientifically true – is that if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will try and jump out immediately. But if you put a frog in a pot of water on a stove and turn the heat up slowly, it won’t notice. And that is very much how stress and anxiety work. They start at very low levels. And then they pile on and pile on and pile on. And by the time you notice, it might be too late. So being self aware, taking that time to check in with yourself, seeing how your behaviour is reflected in others, can be really key in identifying when you need to start thinking about doing something.

JD: Do you have any tips in terms of how to go about checking in on yourself?

PG: We have a partner called Qwell, which is an online resource. Absolutely fantastic. It has peer reviews, it has articles, blog posts, online counselling. I’d strongly recommend people log on to that and just see what recommendations they have there. It is simply taking time, slowing down, stopping and actually ask yourself: ‘How am I feeling? What happened today? I felt angry at something, do I feel angry? Do I feel upset? What caused that? Was that, in my higher opinion, a reasonable response to that situation?

JD: I think journalling is quite a good thing as well. That can help.

PG: That’s certainly one I’d recommend. It has is a lot of power. And it also gives you a way to track your progress.

JD: So finally, how can someone go about contacting caba if they need to?

PG: There’s many ways to do that. Firstly, you can just give us a call. You can drop us an email. We have chat services available on our website. We’ve got, obviously, social channels. And if you just search for caba charity and drop us a message there. We’re very responsive.

JD: Thanks, Paul. We’ll add those details in the show notes for this episode.

PG: Thank you.

JD: Now, I’m looking forward to getting Hannah’s perspective on everything we’ve been discussing. Thanks for joining us today, Hannah.

HM: Thank you for having me.

JD: So Hannah, you’ve made well-being your mission. Can you explain your Accountancy Hub website and how it complements caba?

HM: Okay, so it’s really aimed at trainees rather than those that are qualified. And it’s essentially a support platform and service for accountancy trainees. And there’s a real focus on well-being, community, inclusion and careers. So in terms of well-being, we’ve partnered with various lifestyle and well-being brands, and they’re offering discounts to our members. And it’s things like exercise classes, meal delivery services, sleeping apps – things to help you in the lead up to exams when it’s a very, very stressful time.

JD: So everything that Paul’s mentioned is critical.

HM: Definitely, definitely. Then in terms of inclusion – so I’m an inclusion consultant myself and I’m also dyslexic and was actually diagnosed when I had one exam left. And I’ve used caba before, actually, absolutely love it, brilliant charity. And so on the inclusion side, it’s lots of advice around what to do if you’re studying and you’re neurodiverse. Or perhaps you’re a parent, or perhaps you’re just new to the corporate world and quite overwhelmed. Maybe you’ve got a mental health condition or a physical condition. And it’s about just supporting trainees that have those extra things going on in their lives. In terms of the community aspect, we have an online forum. So accountants can talk to each other across the UK. And then in terms of careers, we have a directory of coaches, mentors and private tutors, so if you need a little bit of extra technical support.

JD: What was it that made you set up Accountancy Hub?

HM: So I career changed into accountancy in my mid-to-late 20s. And so I joined on a graduate scheme at one of the large companies. And then I was studying during COVID: your tuition was virtual, you had virtual books, you were sitting at home and doing exams from home. Sometimes you don’t have the right environment to be sitting exams, you know. We had to have a sign on our front door saying: ‘Exam in progress. Do not knock.’ So that’s one of the reasons I set up Accountancy Hub.

JD: So Hannah, can you talk me through your career journey as an accountant?

HM: Yes, so I started in internal audit. And then I moved to business consulting, and then I was a people consultant specialising in equity, diversity and inclusion. And I was training to be a chartered accountant, studying with the ICAEW. I failed a few of my first exams and it hit me really hard. I was absolutely devastated, having never failed an exam before.

JD: And how did you personally deal with that exam failure?

HM: I cried a lot. I cried a lot. But I had a great support network around me. And I mean, the qualification is absolutely amazing and I have no regrets about, you know, seeing it through to the end. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to be a business owner and to found Accountancy Hub if it wasn’t for the qualification.

JD: Did you ever at times feel like giving up?

HM: Yes, definitely. And I failed two exams and I thought, well, clearly, it’s just not for me. I should do something else with my life. But I’m so glad I didn’t give up.

JD: Is there any way students can deal with that extra pressure?

HM: I would say speak to caba, if you’re an ICAEW trainee. And there’s a lot of logistics around it, like you know, you need to pick a reset date, make sure it’s not too soon, you know, delay it a little bit, get over the hurdle of you failed something, and then open the books again and make sure you’re passing it on that second time.

JD: So what’s life like as an entrepreneur now?

HM: It’s so exciting because you’re creating everything yourself. And people ask me: ‘How are you motivated? You know, how do you not get up at 11 in the morning?’

JD: Do you have a routine? What does that look like?

HM: I do try and start work between nine and half nine because I want to have that routine. I don’t feel like I’m sort of lazy. I try and create some structure in my day, even if I don’t have many meetings. But if you’re the only person that can bring in revenue, you are motivated. You want to start work at nine, and I’m passionate about it anyway, so it’s a great feeling.

JD: How was it the ICAEW qualification helped you to run your business?

HM: As I said, it’s really given me the confidence to be commercially minded and to do my accounts every month. I mean, I do have an accountant, but you know, I have to do all my bookkeeping. And I know what I’m looking at, I know what the p&l means in the balance sheet, which gives me a lot of confidence over my finances. What I didn’t realise is that you’d have to wear every single hat. So you are CEO, you’re IT, you’re marketing and PR, you’re HR, everything, every single role. So it’s a huge learning curve. I’m learning so much about social media and TikTok. I’d had never been on TikTok before starting this business. So it’s super interesting. There are lows. It’s a slow process gaining corporate clients, which is the main way that my business will earn money. But day by day, week by week, I’m getting closer and closer and every single conversation is so interesting. And I’m really finding my niche, which is in inclusion, ethics, actually, and workplace culture. So I do some consultancy work on the side as well.

JD: What does that look like?

HM: So supporting companies with their workplace culture and I’m actually, I’m founding – they’re called Independent Economics – and we’re founding a culture practice there. And it’s me and some other people that I’ve worked with in the recent few years. And yeah, it’s making sure they have a culture that’s aligned to their values and their mission, and that’s inclusive.

JD: Does well-being come into that at all?

HM: It can do, yeah, and I mean, I think it’s so important as part of culture. You know, if you have people working in an organisation with poor well-being, you can have very poor outcomes because they’re stressed, they’re not getting enough sleep. And it becomes an ethics and a quality issue, I think if you’re under so much pressure, or your well-being isn’t good. It can affect audit quality, for example. So yeah, really important, well-being.

JD: So Hannah, it’s clear to see that you are spinning a lot of plates, wearing a lot of different hats and just doing so much. So what lessons from the Accountancy hub have you taken?

HM: So having a well-being platform, I am trying really hard to look after my own well-being. And of course, if my well-being isn’t good, I don’t have a business. You know, I’ve got to prioritise myself. One thing I’m doing is being the best boss I’ve ever had. So I’ve had lots of bosses in the past – I don’t have one now – but I want to make sure that I am my best boss. So this week, for example, I had a really bad cold. And I felt guilty. I didn’t want to take any time off because there was, you know, there’s no one else to do the work. I want to keep working. But I thought: ‘No, honey, you’ve got to stay in bed for a day and don’t work.’ So just little things like that. I’m trying to be a good boss to myself. I’m also trying to have a more flexible routine because I can, and it’s been a hard transition going from – and you’ll know this – that it’s very full on working in professional services and you can sometimes feel tied to your laptop. But I’m trying to give myself the allowance to have a coffee in the afternoon, you know, take an afternoon off if I need to have the headspace. And to be honest, I have my best ideas when I’m not directly thinking about work.

JD: Finally, Hannah, what is your one piece of advice to students for managing their well-being?

HM: I would say lean on your support network. And if you don’t have a support network, create one because there’s so many people out there that want to support you.

JD: Absolutely. I think that’s a great piece of advice. Thank you, Hannah.

Thanks again to Paul and Hannah for joining us today. It’s been great to have you both in the studio to discuss such a personal and important topic.

PG: Thank you.

HM: Thank you.

JD: If you’re struggling with your well-being or simply want to take a more proactive approach, remember to check the show notes for this episode. You’ll find lots of resources to help you out, whether it’s boosting your mental health, financial health, physical health, or accessing general career advice. Also, make sure you visit ICAEW Student Insights for ongoing support during your studies with ICAEW. On the Student Insights hub, you’ll find exam guides, tips and advice on completing the ACA and ICAEW CFAB, and inspiring stories of students and recently qualified members. That’s all available at icaew.com/student insights. Finally, if you found this podcast useful, then make sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode. And let us know what you think by sharing the episode and writing a review on your podcast app. Thanks for joining us on ICAEW Student Insights. Bye for now.

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