As Mental Health Awareness Week kicks off, Sharon Bell chief executive of Services For Education, is urging Institute members to prioritise their mental health as the stresses and strains of the post-pandemic landscape present us with an opportunity to implement good mental wellbeing strategies.
Bell’s day job – running a charity that provides music tuition across Birmingham and a range of courses and consultancy products aimed at the education sector – isn’t mental health focused, although a strong correlation between music and wellbeing has emerged during the pandemic. In fact, her interest in mental wellbeing was grounded in the experience a few years ago of a family member having what Bell describes as a “catastrophic mental health breakdown”. In time, this led to her becoming Chair of Trustees of a mental health charity, Renew Wellbeing.
“In hindsight, there may have been a few small warning signs but it seemed to come out of nowhere,” Bell explains. “The experience highlighted to me just how fragile our mental health can be.” Bell is mindful that this isn’t just about helping those who have hit rock bottom. “There is a huge scale of mental health challenges – from something that is completely debilitating to feeling a bit low and everything in between.”
Having started her current job just a few months before the first lockdown, ICAEW-qualified accountant Bell is acutely aware of the additional pressure that the pandemic has inflicted upon staff. She urges accountants to be kind to themselves and acknowledge that experiencing stress is a natural response to what has been - and in many cases continues to be - a very difficult situation. “If you’re not feeling great, that’s normal. We’re wired to cope with short-term stress but these past 15 months have been unprecedented. The experience of the last year will have inevitably had an impact.”
Even before the first lockdown in 2020, research conducted by CABA, the charity supporting chartered accountant’s mental wellbeing, found that 4 in 10 workers felt as though they were so stressed in their daily lives they were close to breaking point. Now, with a staggering 1.9 million monthly Google searches related to stress and a huge rise in searches for keywords such as ’stress symptoms’, ‘physical symptoms of stress’ we’re clearly looking for answers and guidance on the topic.
Finance teams in particular have often found themselves under immense pressure, as they see the stark financial reality their organisations face often before others in the business. Like their colleagues, they are forced to juggle the demands of the job with home-schooling, other caring responsibilities and other challenging situations that the pandemic has directly or indirectly inflicted upon us, Bell said.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that employee mental health has risen up the list of business priorities in recent years. And for good reason. According to Koa Health’s Wellbeing at work report, more than half of UK respondents (56%) said employee demand for mental health support had increased, and HR managers are spending almost a third more of their time each month on mental health support for employees than before the pandemic. However, 43% admitted that mental health was still not a cultural priority.
As we cautiously look forward to a life without restrictions, the professional demands on us and our organisations will continue to be significant. Bell says recognising the need to look after ourselves and our colleagues has never been more important. “There’s a lot to be said for fitting your own oxygen mask first before helping others,” Bell says. “For me this is about giving people permission to press the reset button.”
Bell points to the NHS 5 Steps to Mental Wellbeing as a useful starting point for strategies to help everyone copy with the stresses of day-to-day life. They include being physically active, connecting with other people, and learning new skills.
“It’s about factoring these things into your daily routine but it’s not about adding to your pressure,” Bell says. And for employers looking to help their teams navigate the stresses they feel, a more human style of leadership will stand you in good stead, she believes. “It’s about continually stressing that wellbeing is a priority and trying to normalise conversations about wellbeing among teams.”
Sharon Bell will be presenting a session on wellbeing at the forthcoming ICAEW Financial Controllers Conference, on 18 May. Find out more and register here
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.