Is your firm a wellbeing dinosaur?

Is your firm a wellbeing dinosaur?

Industry experts Jodie Gill and Richard Jenkins share their thoughts on accountancy and the growing issue of mental health – where many firms remain wellbeing dinosaurs.

Is your firm a wellbeing dinosaur?

As campaigns around mental health continuously increase, the role of firms in supporting wellbeing, particularly within the accountancy sector, has more than ever been challenged. Although there is no denial that awareness has risen, is this enough for real change to happen?

In accountancy, the profession has been challenged by digital transformation and upcoming government reforms, translating into an increase of pressure on professionals, and especially ones entering the industry – meaning firms are now destined to reshape their approach on wellbeing whilst facing the growing responsibility of acting upon it.

A growing awareness

Richard Jenkins, Behavioural Psychologist at CABA, believes that despite attention being brought around the issue, change within the profession still awaits. “There is an increasing awareness around the issue, you can’t miss it – it’s in the news every day, the government is always making promises and not delivering on it,” he says. “Some of the bigger companies, which you may be aware of, also have champions of stress.

“However, I still think you’ve got a lot of dinosaurs in the accountancy profession who think ‘Well I got through it, and I’m okay, so why shouldn’t everybody else be?’ Awareness has increased, but this doesn’t always equal action.”

As businesses gradually consider mental wellbeing as a focus area within their workplace, Jodie Gill, Engagement and Communications Director at CABA believes that employees now also expect more from their employers.

Expanding on this thought, Gill explains: “People want to work for organisations that resonate with their values, and we challenge them emotionally and intelligently. People are looking to get something back from their employer other than their pay cheque at the end of the month.

“They want to be able to work somewhere that is going to develop them as an individual, and where their employers see them as an individual rather than just an employee.”

Firms now seek support from organisations to understand the need of their employees and to fulfil their demand of a healthier and more supportive workplace. At CABA, Gill has seen rising interest from employers requesting guidance on how to change their approach to mental health.

Gill comments: “The profession is going through a challenging time, especially with the economic situation due to Brexit and the potential change of government, so there’s a lot of factors that are affecting those organisations, but also the people working for them.

“Firms are coming to us for support – whether it’s in-house training or to set up referral systems for them. If they identify that an employee is struggling, and they don’t want to tap into their existing employee assistance programme, they want to be able to refer them to CABA.”

The role of senior management

A recent study commissioned by Mindful WorkLife showed that half of UK workers experience stress at least once a day during work yet 27% claim that their company never or rarely takes action to support them.

When asked whether employers do enough to help staff who experience poor mental health, Jenkins claims that real change coming from senior management is still lacking: “I think we could do more to raise awareness and CABA’s main role for this campaign is about highlighting the issues of stress amongst millennial accountants in particular. The problem we’ve got is that it’s somewhat easier to reach the students and the young accountants, but what we don’t get is the other directors, the partners.

“It would be interesting and useful for them to gain some insight into handling stress, because if we improve stress management, we improve productivity. If we improve stress management and productivity, we reduce sickness, and these must be beneficial to a business. So, I’m still saying no, they don’t do enough about it.”

To improve their approach on mental health, Jenkins suggests that firms should look at the help and support available, such as charities and associations, and, of course, CABA which focuses on the accountancy profession.

CABA’s pop-up ‘Venting Machine’ in Canary Wharf early November, which allowed professionals to vent in a soundproof booth.

Jenkins comments: “My message to the firms and to managers is have a look at what CABA offers, but then make time to bring them in to make changes to breed good behaviour and good practice in the workplace.”

Paying attention

Referring to Freud’s belief that everyone wants to be loved, Jenkins tells us that employers should pay attention to their employees by building a healthy relationship with them – a process that could be highly beneficial in terms of productivity. Simple measures that senior management could follow to ensure wellbeing in the workplace include checking on employees and showing interest.

Jenkins comments: “Freud would tell you that we all want to be loved. If I work for you, and you show a bit of interest in me, if you know a little bit about my family, and ask ‘how’s it going today?,’ as an employee I am unlikely to let you down. This is because I would feel that we have a relationship where I want to do well for the other person. That fulfilling relationship can only be productive.”

Whilst it can be difficult to identify warning signs, certain behavioural change can indicate that an employee is struggling with mental health. These are often embedded within daily work conduct, making them less noticeable.

Jenkins identifies signs which mark an unusual behaviour: “One of the first things to look at is short-term sickness absence, as this is part of the fight-or-flight reaction, where running away always seems the best option. It might also not be turning up to work on time, or people no longer looking after themselves – but also ones who can’t finish projects or adopt different behaviour.

“Smokers smoke more, coffee drinkers drink more coffee, alcohol, drugs, they’re all of those sorts of things you can see. One of the greatest indicators is isolation. And I don’t mean just locking yourself away in a toilet – I mean you’re no longer conversing with your colleagues; you withdraw yourself from the world. It’s incumbent upon our managers to look at that and think: I wonder what’s the matter with Richard today? Let’s just have a quick conversation with him and check what’s going on and see if there’s anything we can do.”

Young professionals likely to endure stress

As mental health encompasses an important issue within the accountancy profession, those who are most likely to be affected by it are often young professionals undergoing training and exams.

Millennials, those born in the 1980s to the early 2000s, are particularly prone to experience difficult times.

Jenkins explains: “Research found that 18 to 24-year old individuals spend more than six hours a day feeling stressed as they’re expected to deliver billable hours whilst they’re studying for exams. There’s an element of competition in order to help them get qualified and then get employed, so they sit within a high stress environment.”

Gills adds: “With young professionals particularly, going through the ACA is a very tough qualification and it gives you a very good start in your career whilst allowing you to progress quickly once you’ve qualified. Getting set up with a qualification is a struggle, say three years of training with 15 exams. On top of that you’re trying to increase your profile, so you get a job at the end of it within the firm, because that’s not guaranteed nowadays.

“Roles are also bigger nowadays and responsibility has been enhanced considerably. Once you qualify, you go straight into management, but that management role is significantly larger than it used to be. The landscape is putting pressure on firms and those employees, but I think the roles that people have nowadays is multi-faceted – meaning you’re expecting more from one individual.”

A win-win situation?

In 2017, the government issued a report with the help of a study commissioned by Deloitte disclosing that poor mental health in the workplace cost British employers between £33 billion and £42 billion each year – a tremendous amount that raises eyebrows.

For businesses, ignoring the issue of mental health could therefore lead to great financial loss, a problem that encompasses a ‘lose-lose’ situation.

Commenting on this, Jenkins says: “Some figures suggest that in the world, every 40 seconds, someone commits suicide. In the UK, 18 people a day kill themselves, and men are twice as likely. In large, it’s people who take their own lives because they cannot take it anymore – because life no longer holds any promise for them. As a business, you should be instilling in them self-care, you should be showing them that you care about them by doing something that is tangible, and not just have an HR department.”

More importantly, promoting wellbeing within the workplace could bring out more than financial benefits for firms, such as employee retention.

Analysing the real advantage for employers supporting staff, Jenkins explains: “In one of the CIPD research studies a few years ago, it was found that employees tend to leave bad bosses, not bad companies, meaning the benefits of being a good boss is staff retention. Within the accountancy profession, there’s quite a lot of churn. If you are one of the big four, hanging on to your people once they have qualified can be a difficult task. They will leave the big companies because of the sense of impasse.

“We work harder for the people who care about us – so it’s an easy fix. Big companies need to talk to managers about showing more care, showing more interest. In doing so, staff retention increases, sickness reduces, productivity goes up. These are massive gains for these that are built on profit.”

An ever-changing profession

With its ever-changing nature, one might wonder whether accountancy profession will always be prone to poor mental health. As new regulation and technologies challenge the industry, pressure is installed within working professionals, meaning many now face growing expectations from their clients – generating higher levels of stress.

Jenkins states: “Within the profession, this was a constant turn in terms of legislation: HMRC are changing everything, and we’ve got Brexit coming, so who knows what that can involve? Unlike in some professions where you can sit back and think ‘I passed my exams now I’m okay,’ in the accountancy profession you’ve got to keep up to date. I have no idea how often HMRC change their rules and regulations, but I bet it’s relatively often.”

Improving your mental health

Whilst the accountancy industry represents a profession which often pressurises working professionals through their workload, there are steps individuals can follow when seeking to decrease their level of stress and boost their moral.

When advising individuals experiencing poor mental health, Jenkins says: “One is hydrate, because water is nature’s antidepressant. We need to drink more water because when the brain becomes dehydrated, you move immediately into stress, so you should stay hydrated. The other thing that’s important is rest, and particularly amongst the younger accountants who are studying all the while and work on disability from downtime.

“The third one and probably the most important one is to ask for help. We’re so reluctant to do this as we feel stigmatised by the idea that we’re not conforming. The reality is that most companies don’t want you to fail – they haven’t employed you with a view to try to kill you off. The fear about asking for help isn’t going to do you any favours, it’s not doing your business any better. So, hydrate, rest, and ask for help.”

As many can find it difficult to follow these measures on their own, CABA offers a 24-hour online service to help individuals seeking help.

As its main goal, the wellbeing charity wishes to support as many chartered accountants and their families as possible by challenging the traditional concept of working for an accountancy practice or in that chartered accountant role. If these conversations around mental health increase, CABA believes that change will happen – and particularly for young professionals who embody the future generation of the profession.

Key takeaways:

  • Hydrate, as water is nature’s antidepressant
  • Rest, particularly if you are studying
  • Ask for help and don’t feel stigmatised

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