Mental health and stress in accountancy
Mental health, wellbeing and stress are all major concerns for accountants. Sinead Moore looks at how the big firms are tackling it .
According to the Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association (CABA), the two main reasons for calls last year were concerns around mental wellbeing and stress, highlighting that increased pressures at home and work are having a prevalent impact on accountants.
Further research found that 32% of accountants feel stressed in their day-to-day life and a further 17% have been forced to take time off due to stress.
A survey carried out by YouGov on behalf of mental health charity Mind found nearly one in five (18%) in the wider workforce said they had developed depression as a result of workplace stress, while a quarter (26%) had developed anxiety.
Kelly Feehan, CABA
Encouraging employees to switch off at night and allowing flexible working if possible can help staff to keep a good work/life balance
Workplace stress had caused 42% of respondents to consider resigning, while 40% had looked for a new job elsewhere. Nearly one in seven (14%) had actually handed in their notice because of workplace stress.
The World Health Organisation has warned that mental ill-health will be the biggest burden of disease in developed countries by 2030.
“Accountancy can be a demanding profession, with our research revealing that 17% of past and present ICAEW members in the UK have taken time off due to stress, but there are many ways that employers can positively impact employee wellbeing.” Kelly Feehan, service director at CABA told economia.
“To prevent wellbeing dropping among staff, it’s important to have an open, supportive environment so that they feel comfortable discussing any issues that may be affecting them.
“To prevent stress, keep a close eye on workloads and be aware of signs of stress, including unusual irritability, fatigue, an increase in sick days or a slip in work standards. Encouraging employees to switch off at night and allowing flexible working if possible can help staff to keep a good work/life balance. Ultimately, focusing on employee wellbeing and ensuring employees are supported, motivated and engaged will help both them and you,” Feehan added.
Nick Baber, a director in KPMG’s advisory service, knows better than anyone how stressful the accountancy industry can be.
Baber set up KPMG’s Be Mindful network in May this year after speaking out about his own personal struggle with depression and receiving positive and encouraging feedback from colleagues. Over 600 people have joined the network so far.
“The network is very inclusive. It’s not just people like me who have struggled with depression or anxiety or other mental illness, all sorts of people across the organisation that just want to live a mentally healthy life have joined the network,” Baber told economia.
Baber believes businesses should create a culture of openness, provide support in the workplace and encourage early intervention in order to remove the stigma attached to depression and mental illness.
“There are boundless opportunities and chances for progression and with this high-pressure career comes stress and people can sometimes forget about mental health,” he added.
More than 90% of people believe that admitting to a mental health condition could damage their career prospects, according to data from a YouGov poll for Time to Change and a Populus poll for Mind. The result is that most give a different reason to their employer, if they need to time off work.
Baber stressed the importance of employees feeling comfortable enough in their working environment to be themselves.
“Senior role models are extremely important. It started out with just me and one other colleague speaking out about our struggles with mental illness and now at least 10 seniors have spoken out about their experiences. It shows that you can suffer from a mental illness and still have a successful career and you don’t need to hide it because help is there if you need it,” he said.
KPMG is a founding member of the City Mental Health Alliance. In addition to its wellbeing programme, which includes regular health assessments, a pro-active doctor-led occupational health service and rehabilitation service to support people when they are unwell, the firm offers a mental health benefit within its private medical insurance scheme.
KPMG also has a 24/7 helpline called the Be Well service, which Baber described as “very useful”.
Looking forward, Baber said, “We are currently providing mental health training for senior staff and line managers but this is something that needs to be rolled out across the organisation. Everyone needs to be able to spot the signs early.
“Setting up a support scheme where people can talk and share their experiences so those who are struggling can learn how others people in the organisation cope with mental illness is something I really want to achieve.”
Last year EY became one of the first professional services firms to sign up to eight pledges in the department of health’s public health responsibility deal as part of its commitment to supporting the emotional, mental and physical health of its employees.
One such pledge involves ensuring that employees with chronic conditions and mental health conditions can remain in work and be managed in the best possible way.
Another one of the firm’s initiatives involved 378 employees attending mental health first aid training. They now act as the first point of contact for those facing mental health challenges or seeking advice.
The Big Four firm was awarded a Mental Health First Aid England Award 2015 at the House of Lords in February.
There is also a mental health buddy scheme, which provides informal support to those returning to work following mental ill health by linking them up with someone who has had a similar experience.
EY has a range of other benefits and health services available to employees including a GP helpline, an occupational health service, an employee assistance programme, private health insurance and health cash plan, onsite physiotherapy, health assessments, workplace assessments and adjustment services, flexible working hours and various sports teams, yoga and meditation classes and mindfulness groups.
Steve Wilkinson, EY’s UK & Ireland managing partner for client service, and partner sponsor of Health EY told economia, “Our people make our business a success and so we invest in providing the tools, knowledge and support, through our Health EY scheme, to help them maintain, manage, improve or think about their own health and wellbeing.
“Ultimately, we strive to create a working environment where people can be themselves and achieve their potential. It makes for a more diverse and inclusive workplace. We also empower our people to choose how, when and where they work through access to flexible working, in order to achieve a better work life blend.”
The Sunday Times named EY one of the top 25 best big companies to work for in 2015.
The Sunday Times also awarded PwC’s UK firm’s wellbeing approach its best companies wellbeing award in 2013 and 2014.
Nick Baber, KPMG
You can suffer from a mental illness and still have a successful career and you don’t need to hide it
Sally Evans, senior manager in the diversity and inclusion and employee wellbeing team at PwC, said, “The most important thing we are trying to achieve is an environment where our people feel comfortable and confident speaking up when they need support. Our aim is to make conversation about mental health the norm.”
“We have signed up to Mind’s Time to Change pledge and are committed to breaking down the stigma surrounding mental illness,” Evans said.
The firm has also collaborated directly with Mind to create an internal guide on managing mental health for its line managers.
“We are always trying to offer our line managers more training and guidance to help them to be more confident when dealing with and addressing mental illness,” Evans added.
PwC has its own internal approach to building resilience in teams and there are currently 3,500 people involved in this programme.
“Our resilience workshops are focused on helping people to stay engaged and healthy. We provide tactics, strategy and awareness and encourage teams to develop action plans.
“At PwC we see resilience as a skill and we are weaving it into every aspect of our training from someone who joins the company to partner or director level. We want to embed resilience into people’s everyday life. For us, resilience focuses on physical and mental wellness, not just the ability to bounce back from setbacks. Our resilience training helps develop the leaders we want for the future,” Evans told economia.
The firm also does its best to raise awareness and encourage conversation around mental health to help people spot the signs before it becomes a problem. Evans said PwC endeavours to be as creative as possible in communicating to its employees where to go if they need help or support.
PwC has a 24/7 employee helpline operated by BUPA, which offers support to employees and their families in any aspect of life. There are also meditation rooms available in the PwC offices for employees to take some time out from the stresses of the job.
Deloitte has a network of 20 trained mental health champions who employees can approach confidentially, if they are suffering from stress, anxiety or depression. All the champions have had professional training to give them a basic understanding of mental health and the support that is available within the firm. The champions are also available to give advice to managers about facilitating conversations with team members who they suspect are experiencing mental ill health.
Debbie Stevenson, UK head of HR at Deloitte, said, “We are committed to offering an environment which supports both the mental and physical wellbeing of our people. We provide discounted gym access nationally. We also provide GP, dentist and physiotherapist facilities in our London Health Suite.”
“We know that employees throughout our organisation want more agile ways of working to balance their professional careers with activities, interests and family responsibilities. Addressing this issue has been a major strategic priority for Deloitte over the past 18 months, resulting in our WorkAgility programme, of which our award winning Time Out scheme is a key part,” Stevenson told economia.
Deloitte’s Time Out scheme enables employees to take a four-week period of unpaid leave once a year, for any reason.
"Our aim is to ensure that all our people are able to balance their lives with a successful and fulfilling career, that they are trusted to choose what works best for both them and the team, and that they are judged on output,” Stevenson concluded.
Businesses rely on their people to drive productivity and therefore when employee health is declining, business performance often does too.
Kylie Roberts, director of talent development at Grant Thornton stressed that wellbeing is not just important in the workplace but in life in general.
“It is something we are passionate about as a firm and something I personally am very passionate about,” she told economia.
“We know that when our people are well and healthy, they are happier and they create and sustain better relationships both at work and in life and are therefore more productive,” she added.
“Every development programme we run across the organisation has an element of wellbeing. In this hectic world, learning how to slow down and be present and aware is key.”
The mid-tier firm runs a 40-day wellbeing programme twice a year. The programme has had over 500 participants so far.
Roberts designed the programme by drawing on her experience as a yoga teacher. It focuses on wellbeing and the greater benefits individuals and the organisation can receive from healthier and happier people.
The programme encourages people to eat nutritious healthy foods that feed their brains and internal ecosystems and cut out processed foods, alcohol, caffeine and refined sugars. It also encourages people to exercise and engage in mindfulness every day, starting with mindful minutes and edging up to 20 minutes a day.
Mindfulness is an integrative, mind-body based approach that helps people to manage their thoughts and feelings, paying attention to the present moment.
Mindfulness training has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of relapse of recurrent depression and is increasingly being adopted by firms across the UK to help combat mental illness.
Roberts highlighted that the wellbeing programme is only part of what Grant Thornton does as a firm to promote wellness.
“Wellbeing is much more than healthy eating and mindfulness. Being resilient in this volatile environment is extremely important so we try to create an workplace where our people can thrive,” she said.
Grant Thornton launched a group on its internal social network in the run up to mental health awareness week in April aiming to reduce the stigma attached to mental health and create an open, safe place to share experiences that may help others. The content on the group included fact sheets and helpful information for anyone who may be struggling with mental illness.
The mid-tier firm has also run a number of stress awareness workshops and has an employee assistance line. Roberts has also organised weekly yoga sessions.
The accountancy firm is currently rolling out a pilot programme around supporting employees who are going through a transition.
Simon Michaels, managing partner at BDO, is also passionate about promoting wellbeing in the workplace.
Michaels is on the corporate development board for Mind and is a “huge advocate for the work that is done to reduce the stigma and misunderstanding that too often surrounds mental health”.
“The importance of health and wellbeing is underestimated by many. It is something we take very seriously,” he told economia.
“Our firm is full of talented, ambitious people. As an employer, it’s not only our responsibility to support these people during their careers, it’s our duty to give them the tools and confidence to be themselves and live life to the fullest, both in and outside work.”
The firm has recently launched BDO Wellness – its health and wellbeing portal for all employees and partners – and is constantly reviewing its wellbeing strategy.
Michaels added, “It’s important our services and benefits are regularly assessed and improved to ensure that they reflect what is going on in the outside world, as well as the challenges and demands that work can often present. We are actively encouraging our people to get more involved in helping to shape our wellbeing strategy for themselves and their colleagues.”
The firm also offers occupational health, private healthcare, flexible working and tips and advice to its people on a range of health related matters such as setting and tracking personal goals including sleep, healthy eating and exercise. It also places a lot of emphasis on its counselling manager programme and is a promoter of agile working “in its purest sense”.
Promoting employee wellbeing and combatting mental health in the accountancy industry is a team effort.
“We are all passionate about helping people so this is something we can do as an industry not just individuals,” Baber concluded.
Originally published in Economia, October 2015.