Mental Wellbeing: How to build it into a staff proposition to secure and retain talent

Mental Wellbeing: How to build it into a staff proposition to secure and retain talent

Why accountants need to be thinking about Mental health, and how to build into the proposition to secure and retain talent

World Mental Health Day was first observed in 1992, and has become increasingly high profile in the past few years.  In the twenty-seven years since its inception, ways of working have changed significantly across all industry sectors – with greater use of technology, more agile working patterns and growing demands for a social media presence.

Accountancy professionals experience particular work challenges, which include ongoing study and exams, flexible working (including ‘annual days’ contracts to meet needs during a busy audit or tax season), the pressure of delivering an audit, with narrative cautioning a client and media scrutiny if something goes wrong, managing client expectations and utilisation targets.  Work factors such as these can be stressful, but might still be manageable unless the stress-factors continue for a lengthy period or an individual develops an underlying mental health condition. In such circumstances, mental wellbeing might then deteriorate, which could manifest itself in various ways, such as insomnia, depression, anxiety, panic attacks or something even more serious.

The independent review commissioned by the government in 2017 into workplace mental health (Thriving at Work – the Stevenson / Farmer review) concluded that ‘the UK faces a significant mental health challenge at work … 300,000 people with a long term mental health problem lose their jobs each year, [this is] at a much higher rate than those with physical health conditions … [and] around 15% of people at work have symptoms of an existing mental health condition’.

The human cost to those individuals is clear. And there are further costs, both emotional and financial, to fellow employees and the employer, including increased pressure on colleagues and reduced efficiency and productivity.

Supporting mental wellbeing

With good support, employees can continue to work, whilst managing an underlying mental health condition. If someone does have to take time off, accessing the right support or treatment at the right time can significantly improve the return to work experience for both the individual and their team.

So what can accountancy firms do to support the mental wellbeing of their staff and partners?

When thinking about mental wellbeing in the accountancy sector, there are particular factors to consider. Many employees work for long periods away from home, leading to increased isolation or being unable to maintain a hobby or play an active role in family life.  Working away from home also puts additional pressures on caring responsibilities whether children or elder-care. The work itself can be in a high-pressured, fast-paced environment; conversely some aspects can, on occasion, be dull and repetitive. Both extremes can induce stress.

Bearing in mind the ever-present need to attract and retain talent, employers should be helping their employees manage stress factors and access appropriate medical support. They should build trust and encourage employees to talk about their mental health issues.

The statistics, however, tell a different story.

Employee health and performance

Ninety-six per cent of employers recognise a direct correlation between employee health and performance and either agree or strongly agree that they are responsible for improving employee health behaviours.  But only eleven per cent of employees discussed a recent mental health problem with their line manager and, of even more concern, fifty per cent of employees said they would not discuss mental health with their line manager.

Those statistics are bad news for employers. Because if workers confide in their manager and receive empathy and support it can shape the steps they take to seek help.  Individuals are more likely to seek early support and intervention if openness and trust are there from the start. As Stevenson / Farmer state, we need to change our mind-set towards mental health, ‘accepting that we all have it and we fluctuate between thriving, struggling and being ill and possibly off work’.

Employers have a duty of care towards their employees, which includes mental wellbeing, so should consider what steps they can take to support their employees.  Some initiatives will be more costly than others, and it is for each organisation to determine what it can afford, but there is a wealth of freely available advice for employers, by charities and others.

Creating an organisation which is alert to mental health issues and supportive of its workers will not only help the individuals affected, it will assist the organisation to support co-workers, in its commercial objectives, and to secure and retain talent.

Recommendations on next steps

Our recommendations echo those of the Stevenson / Farmer report:

  • Research – there are free guides from various sources, including charities such as Mind and the Mental Health Foundation.
  • Draw up a plan to support your organisation’s mental wellbeing, communicate it and keep it reviewed.
  • Create mental health awareness across the organisation, through training and other initiatives, and consider accessibility for remote workers – posters on an office noticeboard won’t reach everyone
  • Create and maintain a culture which encourages employees to speak openly about their health concerns
  • Use senior role models to talk about their own experiences of managing mental ill health or returning to work after mental health related absence
  • Provide good working conditions: consider the physical environment, management and whether contributions are valued, work-life balance and personal development
  • Monitor absences. Investigate if there are teams with higher absence levels.

Other options include:

  • Ensuring your medical benefit provisions clearly state what mental health support is available
  • Seek out the right external providers for mindfulness type activities, fitness and counselling or, if these are not available as a benefit, make recommendations to workers
  • Gather anonymised data and include this in management information reports to your board
  • Improve how people can escalate workplace concerns: there is inevitably a correlation between raising a grievance and stress / anxiety. What can be done to minimise this?
  • Ask a senior executive to be a ‘well-being champion’: evangelical and accountable about why mental wellbeing is so important; supporting the organisation’s values, culture and commercial interest in attracting and retaining talent.

Emma Richardson is Director of Worksphere at law firm Lewis Silkin

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