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2020/21 Reporting Season: plan for year end but also for wellbeing

23 November 2020: We know that the 2020/21 reporting season is going to be tough for many, but do we know how we are going to cope with it? Isabelle Campbell, CABA Trainer and Coach (and also Commercial Finance Director and Chartered Accountant), urges members to write mental health into the equation.

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“The difficulty with audit, reporting and deadlines is that they will always exist, but we need to be able to flex and adapt around them,” says Campbell. Reporting season will come around time and time again, it is unrelenting and that will not change.

But the circumstances in which we now find ourselves are very different from anything we have known previously. We have a pandemic, we also have the uncertainty brought about by geo-politics, and we must cope with the rigidity of the requirement to report without actually meeting our peers, clients, suppliers – and some of us are even missing the commute. We have had to become remote to stay safe.

“When we started working from home in March, we had a bit of adrenalin behind us and there was this sense of us doing something new,” points out Campbell. “We were all in it together. Some deadlines became more elastic. There is definitely no novelty factor now.” 

We are now trying to work out how best to manage clients, practitioners, teams, peers and managers as the reporting season comes to a head. And coming together as a team may become more difficult with time because we are not physically together. 

“As we get deeper into the busy season for audit and as deadlines loom, we need to start putting as much emphasis on planning for people’s wellbeing as we do on planning an audit or planning a project,” she says.

“What is positive is that there has been a real movement, particularly by the Big Four in recent years, towards stepping into that wellbeing and mental health space,” says Campbell. “This is not just as a box-ticking exercise but truly thinking about the importance of people.”

She continues: “There is a real business case for wellbeing, mental health, stress management and resilience. This is people’s motivation, their output and their ability to do well. The challenge for professional service fees is that their business model relies on the fee earning capacity of staff, that can sometimes mean long hours for teams, especially in busy periods. 

“Increasingly, we are learning that long hours are not good for people’s mental health,” says Campbell. It is not just a problem that people might cease to cope; it is also a question of role models. “What if a junior member of staff cannot see a good role model in front of them?” she asks. “What if they cannot see themselves being the manager, the director, the partner in this firm?”

She reminds us that firms rely on their ability to retain good people. “Yes, we are in a better place than perhaps we were 10 years ago, but this is challenging now because managing a team has to be done remotely,” she says. That tricky task has just got trickier.

“Client relationships can be challenging too – especially around impairment messages and going concern statements where emotion can be caught up with the numbers and the narrative – and having to manage those relationships from behind a screen is a further challenge,” she says. “And this is not something there is a precedent for.”

Moreover, it is not always clear what needs to be done to plan for a team’s good mental health during reporting season when there is so much uncertainty and so little human contact.

“Not only that, for the first time we have had trainees interviewing, joining firms and onboarding remotely. They have never met their teams. They have never had the social side of working in those teams. They will probably go through their first year completely remotely,” she points out. “And then the next intake of graduates may go through the same process. Does that work?”

We do not know what 2020 and 2021 will create in terms of rounded, experienced, resilient professionals – and that is assuming the pandemic will have an endpoint, and that it will not then reoccur. The concern is that there will be much work to be done in subsequent years to compensate for these strange circumstances.

“We don’t really know whether remote working for inexperienced staff will have worked yet because we have not seen the repercussions of a whole cycle yet,” she says, adding that perhaps a dearth of interpersonal skills could be a real worry. “And yet we are going into our first busy season with all these unknowns. What will an audit room actually look like under these circumstances? Will more resources be needed to get the same amount of work done? Will people burn out faster? Will there be an impact on firms’ bottom lines?”

And we need to be aware that the potential for miscommunication across digital media is huge. Our digital lives have accelerated at breakneck speed and we are never really sure if we have taken everyone with us. What is more, digital etiquette is rarely taught and there has been a lot of behavioural leeway that would perhaps not have been tolerated in the office. Then there is the worry that some of us may not be delivering our true selves remotely.

So much of what has happened during 2020 could be labelled: just getting on with it. The strain is sure to show.

In the final analysis, Campbell is adamant that the human factor is as important as the numbers and the narrative. She says that planning for the good wellbeing of teams will make all the difference to the quality, cohesion and success of those teams as we come out of this. 

And it will hopefully ensure that we are all well.

Isabelle will be hosting a webinar exploring this topic for members of the Audit and Assurance Faculty on 11 January 2021. This webinar is presented in partnership with CABA, who support chartered accountants’ wellbeing. AAF members can register to join here.

Further reading

Mental health and accountancy: removing the stigma

Mental health: are we running out of steam in the ‘new normal’?

Article series: 2020/21 Reporting Season

The above article is part of a series looking at the challenges of the corporate reporting season in 2020/21. The series aims to examine what shareholders, investors and other stakeholders want from corporate reporting at this difficult time.

See the series