A white paper from chartered accountants’ wellbeing charity caba published to coincide with Stress Awareness Month paints a troubling picture of mental health in the accounting industry. It calls on businesses to carefully consider the support they’re offering to employees and recognise that health and wellbeing are integral to the success of their organisation.
According to caba analysis, 55% of accountants admit to suffering from stress and burnout – a significant increase on the 41% of employees in other industries – and four out of five accountants believe that stress and poor mental health are a problem within the industry. Two-thirds of accountants say the complex nature of their work and the lack of room for error are key drivers of stress.
According to Deloitte, poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45bn a year to businesses. The Big Four firm says that for every £1 spent by employers on mental health interventions they get £5 back in reduced absence, presenteeism and staff turnover. But despite the efforts of employers to do more – within accounting or otherwise – Kirsty Lilley, caba’s mental health expert, warns that it isn’t helping.
“Vast numbers of the accountants surveyed aren’t using the mental health support that’s currently on offer,” Lilley says. “Some are even worried about how their employers would respond to hearing that they’re struggling.”
Lilley said fundamental to addressing the stress pandemic across the profession was the need to face up to the problem and create environments in which it isn’t a taboo to discuss mental health. “Education and support around having these conversations is, ultimately, what caba hopes to help achieve with this report,” Lilley says.
How businesses can prioritise employee mental health
Lilley says there are some powerful ways that organisations can ensure they provide an atmosphere for their people that is conducive to good mental health.
Strategise their support
Wellbeing is often treated as something of a bolt-on, with employee assistance programmes (EAPs) tending to be introduced without a strategy. An approach like this might not have the impact you’re looking for, largely because an EAP ultimately has limited influence on culture. If you’re turning to an external helpline because your demanding workload is causing you to feel stressed, it’s difficult to imagine how the person you’re speaking with is going to help.
Instead, a strategic data-driven approach is needed. Wellbeing must be treated with the same importance as productivity and performance, and look at all aspects of a company’s culture. Businesses should invest time determining the root causes of any problems, where they lie and who they primarily affect.
Putting a support infrastructure into place, with measures such as wellbeing agendas and mental health first aiders, can be incredibly helpful. But those in a position of authority must take care to listen to their people and design their support around what they hear.
Introduce role models
It can be difficult to speak about mental health when these discussions aren’t normalised in the workplace. With that in mind, one of the most powerful ways to put team members at ease is to have role models within the organisation who can talk about their own mental health journey.
It’s important, however, these role models are credible and trustworthy.
It can send a powerful message for senior leaders to share their experiences, but a junior accountant might struggle to truly relate to their CEO. There’s a real need for grass-roots movement, so members of the team can hear from someone they relate to.
Develop line managers
The quality of a team member’s relationship with their line manager can do a huge amount to mitigate their risk of poor mental health. Line managers must feel confident in having open conversations. They need to receive training and be able to ask questions about mental health when discussing normal management and development processes.
Establish psychological safety
Caba research suggests accountants have a real fear about being stigmatised for seeking help. To understand this fear, we need to appreciate this is a profession in which precision and competency are highly valued. We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that accountants are afraid of having their credibility questioned.
What’s required, before people can even accept their own difficulties, is psychological safety. A key part of this process is taking the time to understand why people feel unsafe. It’s easy to feel frustrated when people are reluctant to open up, but their resistance is understandable. The first step is to understand where the resistance is coming from and put measures in place so that team members feel at ease.
Read more content on ICAEW's Mental Health and Wellbeing hub.
caba is the charity for Chartered Accountants, supporting past and present ICAEW members, ACA students and their close families from across the globe. "We help the ICAEW community through everyday situations to exceptional life-changing circumstances."
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