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Understanding mental health in accountancy teams

6 January 2021: With the country plunged back into lockdown, professionals are expecting a mental health epidemic over the coming months. Author and practice owner Della Hudson outlines several strategies to help cope with the current crisis.

If you are fortunate to have fairly robust mental health it can be hard to know how to help others who need support.

In light of the latest lockdown announcement, I spoke with Laura Ranaghan, HR consultant and mental health first aider at Citrus HR with a background in professional services, who was kind enough to answer some of my questions on how to look after our team’s mental health and how to spot if somebody is struggling.

‘It’s not unusual’

One in every five or six people is suffering from depression at any one time. That means that even a small firm or team probably has somebody struggling.

The previous lockdown led to more remote working and extra responsibilities and with the latest announcement, professionals are expecting a mental health epidemic in the coming weeks, months and potentially years to come.

So how can we look after mental health as a profession? According to Ranaghan, “we can’t create a workplace that guarantees no-one will ever experience mental health issues, but we CAN create an environment to help support good mental health”

Encourage people to talk about what they enjoy doing. Ask “have you done something for yourself?” Notice if somebody isn’t able to engage.

Look at your company culture to see what can be improved. “We need to be open and honest about wellbeing and mental health,” says Ranaghan. “It is normal to have fluctuations in our mental health and it should be comfortable to discuss this.”

Have an employer-assisted programme for counselling (ICAEW provide this via CABA) and promote this, and consider a wellbeing strategy eg healthy eating, fruit snacks etc.

Monitor workload, especially with some employees potentially remaining on furlough until April and conduct a stress risk assessment for each role and individual. “There is an element of thinking this IS a pressurised job,” says Ranaghan, but this isn’t an excuse for not supporting your team.

Employers should encourage people to take their lunch hour and holidays. And managers should lead by example. Presenteeism should not be encouraged.

In the same way, businesses have physical first aiders, team members can complete an online course to become a Mental Health First Aider. As well as being a trained member of the team, this gives a contact other than a line manager if somebody needs help.

Ranaghan also suggests a channel on a communication tool such as Slack or Yammer specifically dedicated to wellbeing with useful ideas in there. The Mental Health First Aid Association is a good source of inspiration.

How can we spot somebody struggling?

Look for unusual things in an employee's behaviour, for example, they may be worse (or better) dressed or suddenly start missing deadlines. Introverts may suddenly be acting manic, while some may be irritable over things that are not normally an issue, lack concentration, or take on too much work to mask underlying issues.

Watch out for short-term absence: people don’t generally reveal they’re off with mental health issues but may give other vague reasons.

Employees may be under severe stress at home, with traumatic events such as a family death or an ill child, so employers can volunteer adjustments. We should be open to flexible working.

Ask how people are and be prepared to delve a bit deeper than normal at the moment. Ask open questions such as “how are things?” or “how can we support you?” but don’t put anyone under pressure to answer. It helps if managers understand employees’ home scenario challenges, such as homeschooling or caring responsibilities.

One of my social groups banned “fine” in response to “how are you?” which forced us to think rather than answering reflexively.

How can we help?

Some mental health issues may be self-identified and volunteered by an employee. Be open and honest without judgment. Everybody is different so the same workload may stress one person but not another.

There may be a specific task, relationship or single client that is stressful. Look to explore what is practical to do to help. Be prepared to support them and adjust their hours, so they can start later if not sleeping well, for example.

Be sympathetic and treat this in the same sort of way as a physical illness. Confidentiality is very important because of any potential stigma so check who they want to know. Will they need time off to visit a counsellor?

“Destigmatising mental health in the workplace is the best thing an employer can do,” says Ranaghan. 

If we are not able to support them what are our options as employers?

An employer has a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments BUT the employee needs to be fit to be at work. 

We can still talk to them about their performance and absence, but approach this with understanding. Ask whether they have talked to their GP or anyone else in a professional capacity. Risk assess the role and make changes where practical. 

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