Tackling the stigma of mental health in the accountancy profession

Tackling the stigma of mental health in the accountancy profession

Accountancy firms such as EY are now increasingly adopting new measures to raise awareness in the workplace.

Tackling the stigma of mental health in the accountancy profession

Whilst the issue of mental health encompasses a complex and often ‘taboo’ subject within the workplace, World Mental Health day offers an opportunity for professionals to open up around the issue.

Back in May, the New Zealand PM Jacinda Arden released her country’s first ‘wellbeing budget,’ a fiscal programme which favours citizen happiness over capitalist gain. When calculating a nation’s GDP, the PM believes wellbeing should be considered.

Much like New Zealand’s budget, should firms focus on their employees’ wellbeing instead of financial growth? In England, work-related mental health problems are costing businesses up to £26bn a year, illustrating how an unhealthy workplace can impact both productivity and morale.

CABA’s Wellbeing Survey, published in 2012, revealed that more than a third of employed accountants do not believe their employer is interested in their personal development.

The survey also highlighted sleeping problems in 43% of unemployed accountants, with 35% also suffering from anxiety.

Where and how to start

In 2013, CABA’s continued research introduced further concerns. The findings showed that 32% of accounting professionals to experience stress in day-to-day life, where a quarter have had mental health issues.

Following these findings, the charity has worked to promote wellbeing and promote a healthy workplace within the industry. In 2018, CABA enabled 2,907 people to receive support and advice whilst 633 individuals worked with a counsellor. Above all, 138,127 professionals gained access to online self-help guides.

Kelly Feehan, Service Director at CABA, said: “At CABA we are committed to cultivating an environment in which people feel safe to talk about their mental health and making sure our community of ICAEW members, ACA students, and their families always know where to turn. Through our extensive network of experts, we offer emotional support for those who need help with mental health issues, including stress, anxiety and depression.

“This service is confidential, available 24/7, and completely free to use. We also offer free online treatment for anxiety and depression through our SilverCloud programme as well as life coaching.”

Amber Cowburn, founder at Working Well and mental health strategy manager at UWE, believes businesses should aim to prioritise the health and wellbeing of their employees.

Cowburn said: “Accountancy firms must start by analysing issues within their workplace, listen to their employees, and devise a mental health workplace strategy that works for them. Things like mental health training, wellbeing initiatives, support services, policies, and events or campaigns are all part of that.

“There are so many tools and resources for businesses to use now. Mental Health First Aid training is a brilliant place to start as it is an accredited course with an evidence base and can really help boost mental health awareness and knowledge in your business. There are also lots of audits and charters which can help guide the process. Consultancy and training companies like mine – Working Well – can help guide businesses through this journey.”

Cowburn upholds that individuals at the top of the ladder can enable change to happen.

She suggested: “Senior leaders endorsing mental health as being important for the business, and being open about their own mental health can also really help smash stigma around mental health in the workplace.”

Accounting firms take action

To tackle the stigma, accountancy firms are increasingly adopting new measures and initiatives within the workplace. EY, for example, has responded to the growing problem by initiating schemes and programmes.

Justine Campbell, managing partner for talent in the UK and Ireland at EY, explained that EY aims to treat mental and physical health on an equal footing.

“From this approach we established Thinking Differently, our initiative to challenge the taboo surrounding mental health,” Campbell said. “As part of our efforts to overcome the mental health stigma, we encourage our people to share stories, including senior leaders, talking openly about their own experiences of depression, anxiety, and alcoholism.

“In addition to this, the firm has a number of programmes and support processes in place. Over 700 EY employees have received training as Mental Health First Aiders, to better equip the workforce in identifying and helping people who are mentally and physically struggling.”

Along with its programmes, EY runs a scheme to promote mental awareness amongst employees, in which industry professionals are encouraged to share their experience and struggles.

Campbell said: “Our Mental Health Network, led by employees, acts as a key source of support by running a buddy scheme which pairs people who have had similar experiences, for example returning to work following a period of ill health. We also launched our Mindfulness Network, helping and encouraging people to learn and practice mindfulness at work.”

Finally, the Big Four firm has launched webinars which focus on wellbeing, an initiative also aimed at tackling the stigma in the industry.

“To help improve people’s knowledge and understanding of mental health, we run monthly webinars on wellbeing topics such as sleep, managing anxiety and alcohol drugs and addiction,” Campbell said.

“One of most recent initiatives involved the launch of a programme to raise awareness, provide information and support to those affected by domestic abuse. This can have a long and significant effect on mental health.”

Healthy habits

The accountancy profession is known for its long hours of work, which is why keeping healthy habits is essential. Cowburn recommends prioritising nutritional food, sleep, exercise and fresh air throughout the day.

“You can always find ways to incorporate healthy habits even in a stressful work period,” Cowburn said. “Maybe using your commute time to listen to a podcast or use the Head Space app to calm yourself down, learn some breathing exercises for when you feel overwhelmed, get outside even if it is just for 5 minutes, or learn some basic stretches to do if you are desk bound for hours on end.”

At EY, Campbell believes the firm promotes a healthy office environment by offering a flexible working culture.

She stated: “We have a clear flexible working culture, empowering people to choose how, where, and when they work. From reducing weekly commute time by working part of the week from home, negotiating a reduced-hours contract to juggle other commitments, or taking a longer lunch break to fit in exercise, the option to work flexibly can really benefit mental wellbeing.”

“Our working environment also has health and wellbeing in mind with offices featuring calm rooms, walking treadmills, standing desks, and wellness points, where employees are able to review their health statistics,” Campbell added.

Whilst the multinational firm has successfully tackled the stigma in the workplace, it is not the only one to have done so. Other accountancy firms, including KPMG and Grant Thornton, have also introduced measures to help improve mental health awareness in their workplace.

Schemes and programmes

At BDO, partners and staff from the accountancy and business advisory firm have recently taken part in a programme entitled “Chain Challenge,” which includes physical and non-physical events aimed at raising awareness in mental health. The programme also promotes practice in relation to managing wellbeing.

During the event, colleagues gathered to participate in wellbeing activities such as cycle rides, organised walks, or office yoga.

Chain Challenge organised a road bike tour in the UK, in which employees took part in regional outdoor cycling rides whilst BDO also partnered with cycling events company Rollapaluza for its indoor static bikes facility.

Chris Grove, part of the firm’s Leadership Team and head of BDO’s culture board, was one of the driving forces behind the Chain Challenge.

He said: “Anyone who knows me, knows that cycling and culture are two of my great passions, so when a member of my team suggested a firm-wide cycling challenge, I knew we could easily link the two. Knowing we have cycled over 10,000 miles in the space of just 10 days is a fantastic achievement – but knowing we have opened more conversations about mental and physical health is even better.

“For three years, we’ve been using MIND’s 5 Ways of Wellbeing to help our people pay more attention to their own wellbeing, and I am incredibly proud of the progress we have made.

“We know that not everybody has the ability, or desire, to hop on a bike, so we ensured we had planned inclusive activities and events that meant that all of our 5,000 people were able to get involved. The excitement around the challenge has been felt throughout the business and it has created a really positive buzz.”

Rob Stephenson, founder of the social enterprise Inside Out, shared his own personal story whilst visiting BDO offices.

He said: “My organisation’s mission is to smash the stigma of mental ill-health in the workplace, and events like BDO’s ‘Chain Challenge’ are vital in order to achieve this and also to encourage all employees to focus on their wellbeing.

“I was thrilled to have the opportunity to take part in BDO’s programme of events and share my own story of living and working with  bipolar disorder. I also felt privileged that so many BDO employees felt able to share their own stories and experiences of mental health, whether this be about themselves or their family and friends. This was truly inspirational.

“Being able to speak openly about this in a business-setting really reflects the positive culture that BDO has created.”

For mental health resources, please visit the World Mental Health Day resource page. Alternatively, ICAEW members, ACA students and their families can contact CABA for additional resources.

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