Mental health and accountancy: removing the stigma
26 October 2020: Chartered Accountant Ben Grant shares his story of the high-stakes, high-stress working life that led to his breakdown, and how opening up to colleagues and friends was a big step in the recovery process.
For as long as I can remember, achieving the best results was important to me. After a history degree, an interest in business led me to the world of accountancy and eventually to the local office of a Big Four firm as an auditor. I was excited to apply my drive to the professional world and found myself amongst colleagues who shared my values – hard work, diligence and perfection. It was exciting and I enjoyed the work hard, play hard vibe.
I soon found that the hours and deadlines were tough. The expectations were high and the pressure to deliver for colleagues and clients was like spinning plates. But to my mind, the stress and worry were just part of having a professional job. The funny thing is that I never thought stress would affect me. As long as I wasn’t physically injured, as long as there was no blood I’d be OK. It was really just a case of cracking on.
In hindsight, there were many warning signs from around this time that things weren’t right. During one particularly intense year-end audit, I remember stressing on the first day that we wouldn’t make the reporting deadline. This built to the point where I needed to take a day off to sort my nerves out. I remember feeling extremely embarrassed about this and insisting that I only needed one day off to deal with the problem.
One specific client conversation stands out to me during these early years. We were wrapping up the audit of a small manufacturing business and I got on especially well with the finance director, so our email correspondence often had a personal and jovial note. I mentioned to him that once we’d signed off his accounts I’d be rotating off the team, thanked him for his help and wished him well for the future. He did the same, but the last thing he said was “Remember – always combat stress. Wherever you find it, it’s so important to manage it. Take care”. To me, the advice seemed a bit out of the blue and I brushed it off as I felt I didn’t need it.
I continued through this pattern for the next few years, by which time I’d moved to my firm’s M&A team in London. The work was high-paced and the nights were long. The nature of City work means you don’t leave the office until the project is done and the client is happy, and the need to “keep up” and handle the pressure was part of the job. Looking back, these years are mostly a blur. More responsibility and intense periods followed – it didn’t take long before cracks appeared and I finally accepted I needed help.
I was referred to a psychologist. It was only when I sat down with her that I realised I was not well. She wanted to understand how I’d ended up in front of her. During these sessions, I was forced to reflect on what caused me to get to this point. My need to achieve and “keep up” were big players. But the unforgiving deadlines of my work, the stigma around mental health and weakness, and the fear of speaking up had created the environment where, in my case, a breakdown was the only way out.
Opening up and talking about my story became a big step forward in the healing process. I spoke with lots of ex-colleagues, including a few who were very senior. Most understood completely and even discussed their own career struggles. But with others, it felt the issue wasn’t to be talked about, that disclosure somehow meant weakness. This is part of a wider problem.
Accountancy has taken big steps forward recently in removing the stigma around mental health. Many firms now have dedicated mental health champions and mindfulness charters. But the worry about opening up and the belief that it can only be negative for your career still means that many accountants are putting their work over their mental wellbeing. Only by sharing our stories and talking openly can we start to change this culture and show that you are not the only one going through such struggles - and you can come back to full strength. In an industry driven by client needs, fees, and tight deadlines, there is still much more we can do.
It is now two years on since my breakdown. I still work in finance and remain a proud ACA, albeit in a job with less stress and less pressure. Of course, there are still times where I need to remind myself to take it easy. But I have learned that recovery is a case of learning to accept your own limitations and remembering that it’s OK not to be OK. And that by speaking up, I can hopefully prevent the same happening to others. For me, this was more than half of the journey to recovery. To all accountants out there, a problem shared really is a problem halved.
CABA (Chartered Accountant Benevolent Association) are on hand 24/7 to provide help, advice and counselling for ICAEW members in need of mental health and emotional support, either face-to-face or over the phone. Further information can be found here.
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