Mental Health for Accountants

Mental health and wellbeing has rightly become a high priority, with problems affecting all ages and walks of life, from teenagers doing GCSEs to new parents coping with sleepless nights and pensioners coming to terms with the loss of their professional identity. Bereavement & divorce are widely acknowledged to be the most stressful and depressing of life events. Not only can virtually all aspect of life challenge wellbeing, case studies invariably show that mental health problems arise from a combination of factors. Apart from personal factors, societal changes have a huge effect too, with social media accused of driving aspirations to levels beyond what can be achieved for everyone and instant communications accelerating the pace of work & life. So this is a vast issue and the following article shares a few thoughts.

In the work place 57% of all working days lost due to ill health were accounted for by work-related stress, depression or anxiety (Health and Safety Executive figures). These figures are obviously very concerning but it is important to remember that individual employee wellbeing is often a combination of different influences. Even employers with high level focus on mental health find that many of their staff are still being adversely affected by issues which lie outside the workplace. How far should employers go into delving into their staff’s personal problems, especially as employers are not qualified counsellors? Also some staff say they would actually rather come to work and forget about their personal problems, than dwell and discuss it with albeit well-meaning colleagues. So we recognise that ensuring mental health in the workplace is not straightforward.

Third of accountants suffer from poor mental health

According to ICAEW nearly a third of accountants (30.4%) suffer from mental health issues, with more than half (51%) admitting depression and anxiety leaves them dreading going to work. More than two in five (43.5%) accountants believed their job was a key contributor to their poor mental health.

The Big Four accountancy firms have led the way in mental health and wellbeing initiatives. Their approaches have included appointing a full time Mental Health Leader, campaigns encouraging people to talk about mental health at work and reduce stigma. EY has trained over 500 staff as mental health first aiders, and KPMG has introduced the “Be Mindful” program to create a safe space for colleagues to share their experiences and gain support regarding mental health 

Despite such high profile and well-resourced initiatives, which help the consequences, are they tackling the causes of work related mental health problems? Why are staff more stressed now than they were in the past, and what needs to change on a structural level to address this?

Across the wide spectrum of financial roles we deal with, Finance Directors working in the NHS face some of the most difficult and stressful challenges, trying to achieve huge cost savings despite ever increasing demand for health services and a fundamental desire to enable the best care for patients. Whilst there are many who relish challenge, the fear of failure, career ending loss of role and reputation greatly added to levels of anxiety. This could be compounded by the feeling of being personally responsible for organisational spending beyond their individual control. Greater support and sharing of responsibility across the whole Board, including the Chief Executive is essential in combating such problems.

Talking to people at all levels in finance and accounts there are some very common causes of stress. These include onerously tight processing timescales for example, processing payroll or producing monthly accounts. It is not uncommon to hear of finance staff routinely working until 10pm to meet these deadlines. Those working in Practice often have similarly high workloads meeting client demands, working in teams carrying staff shortages. One referred to being told she could have time off in lieu but in reality there was never any time she could be off. These problems are further compounded for studiers, who are left with little time in which to study and fear the consequences of failing exams. Some studiers have also amassed a study support bill they are told they will have to pay back should they leave, so they feel trapped in the role, under extreme pressure and unable to escape.  

Sufferers should be comforted to know that there are alternative roles, where these sorts of pressures are less and where there is more support. Of course you will have personal reasons why you are where you are. Don’t think that needing to work in a particular location, or particular hours or having to repay a study support claw back cannot be overcome, especially if you have skills in great demand, like finance and accountancy. 

Unhappy at work?

“I started my new job and realised within the first few days that I had made a huge mistake. Despite continuing to feel unhappy at work, I stuck at it and stayed there for 8 years.  Fortunately I eventually got the great support and encouragement I need to move on and I now have a new career which I absolutely love. I do regret spending such a big chunk of my life feeling poorly valued at work, life is too short”.

The above is just one example of the people registering with us every day who are unhappy at work. Whilst the length of endurance in this case is unusual, people often lack confidence in their abilities, or have had their confidence eroded and so are not proactive in trying to improve their situation. There are many things you can do to improve your well-being at work:-

  • Think through carefully and list the particular things at work that make you feel unhappy, alongside what changes could be made to deal with these issues. 
  • Talk to your employer, make them aware of how you feel, the issues and possible solutions. Remember that they probably didn’t realise  you are unhappy, or appreciate the work place causes which are likely to be deflating other people too, so will probably be grateful that you have made them aware of the issues.  

If you can’t improve the situation with your employers and are still unhappy then consider changing your job. Even when working in the same profession, such as finance, roles vary hugely from organisation to organisation. Often we find people do not realise the value of their skills and the very different opportunities available that will suit them much better. With the widely reported shortage of talent there are more opportunities than ever and there is no need for anyone to be stuck in a demoralising rut. 

Tips for dealing with stress at work

  • Have clear plans and effective systems in place.
  • Ensure others understand your plans and work to them too, for example providing their figures in good time. 
  • Decide what is important and/or urgent and prioritise effectively – agree with your boss the order and then don’t allow less important issues to distract you from the priorities.
  • Beware of being too helpful- the super supportive colleague who everyone turns to, conveniently forgetting you are in the middle of an urgent reconciliation. It is OK to say yes I will help you but after I have done x & y.
  • Have breaks from work – e.g. don’t eat lunch at your desk, do go and have a walk, get some air and take the time to ensure you eat healthily. 
  • Outside of work, make sure you dedicate time to exercise, relaxing activities and completely switch off from work.  
  • Consider getting a pet, but not one that is going to add to your stress in the demands of caring for it! 

Places to go for further reading and support:

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24th November