CEO of CABA on mental health, being honest, and the benefits of flexible working

CEO of CABA on mental health, being honest, and the benefits of flexible working

Mental health isn't the taboo topic it used to be and yet 27% of people still admit feeling stressed in their day-to-day job, so Kath Haines says there is still work to do

Kath Haines is the chief executive of CABA, the charity which supports the wellbeing of past and present ICAEW members and their families. It addresses emotional, physical, community, family, friends, career, and financial wellbeing and assess how best they can support individuals in these areas with services like career coaching, health and care support, and development courses.

CABA’s overall aim is to help people look after their own wellbeing by giving them support when they need it. They reach 175,000 people and their families, and last year covered people in 55 different countries.

A large part of CABA’s remit is around the mental health of ICAEW members, so Accountancy Age caught up with Haines during Mental Health Awareness Week last month to chat about mental wellness at work.

1. What made you want to work at CABA and what do you do in your role?

I came to CABA just over 10 years ago as a finance director and then became chief executive about 18 months later. Having worked in the housing sector for three years following many years in the commercial world I was happy to move into the charity sector.  I enjoy working for an organisation that is making a difference to the people they work with.

In my role, I’m the key link with the trustees so I spend a lot of time working with them on strategy. My focuses are CABA’s strategic development and making sure we have the right workforce to be able to support this. I also speak to members at events and chair the board of our umbrella body, the Association of Charitable Organisations, which gives me more exposure to the whole sector.

2. What specifically does CABA do around mental health?

We deliver courses and workshops, particularly around resilience, for example teaching people to manage and deal with stress. We also run a course which helps managers to spot the signs of stress in their staff.

We offer emotional support through counselling, whether face to face, online, or via telephone, to help with mental health issues like stress, anxiety, depression, or relationships and bereavement support. We work with partners and qualified training counsellors all around the country as well as in some places outside the UK, to help deliver these services. If someone from a particular country has a need and we don’t currently have a service there, we would look to source someone individually to work with them.

3. How do you think mental health is treated in the accounting industry?

Mental health is such a huge topic and is now being discussed openly by many people. I don’t think it’s the taboo topic it used to be. It’s important that initiatives like Mental Health Awareness Week encourage people to speak more openly about the issues they face.

Years ago, many people wouldn’t have thought about talking to their manager or letting any signs of mental ill health show in the workplace for fear of losing their jobs, but I think that it’s much better now. We did some research last year which indicated that 94% of HR managers or directors think mental health is now a legitimate reason to call in sick, which I think is a really impressive figure.

A separate piece of research we conducted showed that 57% of employed Brits would tell someone at work if they thought they were suffering from stress, anxiety or depression. But there’s still a lot to do because 32% said they would keep quiet about it.

We also conducted a survey with our members last year. From the data we got, 34% of members weren’t happy about their physical and mental health and 31% said they had experienced mental health issues. A further 16% selected stress as their main health concern, with 27% saying they felt stressed in their day-to-day job. This is obviously a big concern, and one we’re looking to proactively address.

When we introduced our courses 11 years ago, the first one we conducted was stress management because we knew stress was the underlying issue for many people who came to us for support with other problems.

4. Do you think the fact accountancy is a male-dominated profession has an impact on how mental health is treated in the industry?

It is now far less male-dominated than it used to be, but it is true that traditionally men have been more reticent to talk about their mental health. There are good examples of where firms have shared stories of employees who are prepared to talk about their mental health issues, to set an example within the firms, such as Nick Baber at KPMG. This makes it easier for others to feel comfortable about approaching their manager to talk about mental health. It’s really important people are educated about mental health. Physical symptoms, which are easier to see, are sometimes easier to explain than hidden illnesses.

To address this, we’ve done some work with KPMG in Birmingham. They set up a group in the Midlands around raising awareness of mental health, getting people to come in and listen to a speaker during their lunch break. It’s about actively encouraging people to talk about mental health and this particular initiative was introduced by one of the partners/directors there who had had mental health experiences themselves.

5. What should businesses be doing now to cater for all aspects of mental health in the workplace?

Nail the basics, such as creating an open environment. Try to encourage managers to check in with their staff regularly so any signs of stress, anxiety, or depression can be picked up quickly, and hold honest conversations to help the employee feel better, sooner. It’s about generally taking an interest in your staff, not just when an issue arises, whether it’s mental health or something else.

Also there’s the work-life balance. Management should be setting an example, for instance by taking a lunch break and leaving work on time or making sure that staff don’t feel like they have to stay there until their manager goes home. Encouraging people to get away from their desks is key, for example using walking meetings as a way to get out. It’s just simple things really that help people develop an appropriate lifestyle and in turn help them with their mental health.

Another key point is trying to build a team spirit within the office and making sure everyone feels included as this can also help mental wellbeing. Listening to staff, and making sure everyone feels valued, is so important. We did something like this in our office just yesterday, where we asked the staff how we (as a senior management team) could perform better as leaders. The fact that people were given the opportunity to express their views and be heard made a really big difference.

6. If an individual came to you and asked ‘how can I manage stress better’, what would you say?

I would start off by asking them what makes them feel stressed, and help them to understand what their triggers are. This includes thinking about how they perform their job on a day-to-day basis – do they take breaks, how do they manage their workload, do they diarise time to do important work so people don’t fill their time up with meetings?

It’s about getting to know the individual and helping them understand themselves better so they can find the root causes of their stress and then address them. It’s putting some of the load back on the individual, and not giving them a solution but helping them find a solution. It might mean working with them to manage their workload, and if it’s too much, to identify whether some aspects of the job could be done by someone else.

Often you find people are stressed because they don’t know how to delegate or they don’t say no to anything and the work piles up. So it’s having that regular check-in with them. The outcome can also depend on whether the stress is workplace-related or not, and sometimes it is causes outside your control. If this is the case, it might be best to suggest they take some advice from elsewhere. It’s about trying to encourage them to talk to the people who can give them the most help. If you know people well enough you will notice if there’s something not quite right. You’ll be able to spot those signs, and our course for managers identifies the sorts of things to look for.

7. How can people ‘switch off’ from work?

Part of it is having the desire to do it and part of it is to do with the culture of the organisation. Managers have a responsibility in this as well. It’s dangerous to get into the habit of answering emails at 10 o’clock at night because people will keep sending them to you. People need to be prepared to say to their manager ‘when I go home at night I won’t be looking at emails after 7 o’ clock’ for example.

I’m quite lucky, I’ve never had a problem with switching off. There’s been circumstances where I’ve had to work excessive hours when I worked in accountancy, but you just need to manage it and ensure it’s not on a regular basis.

Taking holidays is another key aspect in helping to switch off. I’ve always been one who likes to take my holidays – you need the time out. I would advocate that everyone should take at least one 2 week break a year. Build some interesting things into your life, that you want to do for yourself during the week, such as exercise, which we know is good for our mental health. Make sure you have some other interests and don’t neglect your family.

8. What’s your opinion on flexible working and how can it help mental health?

It’s a good way to boost mental wellbeing. We introduced flexible working at CABA this year. You need to have certain guidelines, but it works. We don’t have core hours like a lot of organisations, but we have certain rules built in around wellbeing – if someone works for over eight hours they have to take an hour-long break in the day.

Ensuring people aren’t working 12 hour days and burning out is so important. I would certainly encourage it because it boosts engagement and productivity. People can fit other things in – doing exercise, spending time with their children, and not having to go home so late, which ultimately engages them more with the business as they don’t feel like they’re sacrificing their home life.

9. How do we combat workplace discrimination against people with mental health conditions?

No-one should ever feel discriminated against because of their mental wellness. I think there’s a big education piece to enable employers to fully understand mental health at work. It’s linked to knowing your staff and then dealing effectively with support, whether it’s offering counselling or whatever it might be to help the individual. It’s about educating the whole workforce about mental health. The more we talk openly about it, the better. Ignorance is one of the key drivers of discrimination.

To help drive better awareness, we’ve trained people in mental health first aid at CABA and the conclusion was, although they’re well-trained in that, the responsibility isn’t just on them, it’s on the whole organisation.

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