We know that mental health is one of the biggest challenges facing the workplace today, costing UK businesses up to £34.9bn each year. Mental health issues can affect anyone at any time, but we know there are particular pressure points in an employee’s life where existing mental health issues can be exacerbated, or new ones can start. The transition from university into the workplace is one of those times.
There’s no doubt that starting an accountancy career can be exciting. But it can also be difficult and stressful. It can involve getting to grips with the expectations of a new job, at the same time as managing high rents and bills on your own for the first time. It can mean leaving family, friends and a university support network to move to an unfamiliar city.
For this reason, the transition from study into the workplace is a focus area for the City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA). We surveyed students and graduates who are planning to start a career in accountancy, among other City professions, to better understand the potential impact on their mental health. The results revealed that the majority (69%) of students and graduates who are hoping to start a career in accountancy firms are living with, or have lived with, a mental health issue. Over half of them (53%) say that they have experienced anxiety, 40% depression and a further 25% have suffered from panic attacks. With respect to starting a career, 57% admitted that they were concerned about how the transition to the workplace could affect their future mental health.
But despite the occurrence of mental health issues, the majority of respondents said they are afraid to disclose mental health issues to their employer out of fear of being negatively judged. Over two thirds (67%) are worried that telling a prospective employer about their past or current mental health issues would affect their chances of securing a job.
The stigma of mental health looms large in the mind of our respondents. Fewer than half (45%) of all respondents said they would feel comfortable discussing mental health issues with a future manager. On the other hand, 76% said they would feel comfortable to talk to a manager about physical health issues that they have such as diabetes or back pain.
While these survey results make for a worrying reading, I believe they provide employers with guidance to shape their business to be one which attracts, retains and grows talent. I was particularly interested by the finding that showed that students and graduates entering the workforce want to be able to talk openly about their mental health issues from day one, without worrying about being judged or impacting their careers. More than three-quarters of respondents (77%) would be more likely to apply for a job at an employer which has commitments around mental health. It is very clear – those employers who show that they are open to talking about the mental health of their employees are going to be the most attractive to applicants.
A working group of CMHA members are currently looking at how firms can improve their approach to graduate recruitment and early years development, to ensure that mental health issues are not a barrier to career progression and that support is readily available from the outset. One recommendation is that, at recruitment stage, firms should communicate what mental health support is available to employees and give clear guidance on how young people can access that support. For example, if you have people with mental health first aid training on your staff or there are peer support groups, make sure you talk about it.
If employers get it right, jobs can be adjusted in a way that enhances a person’s whole life so that people can thrive in the workplace. And, in the long term, these job seekers are the business leaders of the future. Those who experience a positive mental health culture from the very beginning of their career are more likely to be the mental health literate leaders of the future. On the other hand, employers that don’t get it right risk poor recruitment success rates, lower productivity and lost talent, all of which hits the bottom line.
Accountancy firms can play an important and positive role in supporting the mental health of employees. Employers have a responsibility to their people and there is a very clear business case to do so. After all, it is people that make businesses great.