Q&A: caba CEO Cristian Holmes

Q&A: caba CEO Cristian Holmes

Accountancy Age spoke with caba CEO, Dr Cristian Holmes, to discuss the importance of the organisation’s mental health services in helping accountants cope with the demands of the profession

Q&A: caba CEO Cristian Holmes

Mental health in accounting is still quite stigmatised, with only one in 10 accountants admitting to feeling comfortable talking to their line manager about their mental wellbeing, according to Dr Cristian Holmes CEO at caba, an occupational charity that supports the ICAEW community.

The accounting profession can be as demanding as it is rewarding, and the precision and dedication needed for the job can cause severe stress and burnout, he says. However, many accountants admit to being fearful of speaking about mental health issues because they worry it may negatively impact their career progression.

Speaking to Accountancy Age, Holmes outlines the crucial role caba plays in cultivating a safe space for accountants to talk about their mental health, and the services it offers to help members of the profession better cope with the pressures they face each day.

Could you start by providing a little background on caba and the services it provides?

Caba has been around for about 135 years. We started off 1886 with a £50 donation and we’ve gone from strength to sprint to where we are today.

Caba provides a broad range of support services to members of the ICAEW and their dependents. This includes direct financial support (as would be expected from a benevolent association), but also includes a very informative website with signposting and a full set of training courses.

Last year, we had over 500,000 visitors use our online tools on our website, up almost 20 percent on the year. We took 9,000 people through training courses around wellbeing and career coaching. Last year, we had around 3,000 support cases, which is the more direct support and over 1000 accountants used our legal support helpline, and just shy of 500 grants were given.

How much awareness there is among accountants of caba and the services that the organisation provides?

Awareness is a challenging one and that’s probably what’s behind the rebrand. Almost everybody knows about caba, we’ve got a very good brand awareness. What we haven’t got is an awareness of the breadth of the support we offer.

When we did our research, we found people thought we were a financial brand and not many people felt that they could adequately describe the whole range of support that caba offers. The way we presented ourselves and services was not considered relatable to those in the profession.

Looking forward, we are focussing on the most pertinent issues, prioritising our support and guidance. As we can see, mental health is becoming increasingly important. Our rebranding exercise allowed us to consult and take stock of the challenges that lie ahead.

Caba is undergoing a major rebrand, with the company looking to “refresh” its mental, physical and financial wellbeing services and tools. Could you outline this in more detail?

We’d known something was amiss with the brand for a while, and the trustees decided now was the right time to do something about it. And with any exercises like this, you go back to the community and ask them what’s going on? How do they feel about the brand?

We’ve got some real positives in that we got such high levels of trust. Three quarters of people we surveyed said that they trusted caba, which is fabulous. But the way we were presenting ourselves wasn’t considered relatable to the accounting profession.

So, part of the rebrand was an opportunity to look at how we present ourselves to the world. And part of that rebrand was to engage with that community and try and understand what the most pertinent issues were, and make sure that caba was focused on those issues We need to make sure the caba’s services are aligned to the needs of accountants and their dependents.

How have you supported accountants to manage their mental health during the pandemic?

We’ve supported on three levels: by putting greater emphasis on online resources, information and signposting.

We’ve run campaigns, courses and events, as well as connecting people with counsellors to access therapy, where people felt that they needed to do something more proactive with their mental health.

You were appointed CEO at caba in April 2020. What are some key lessons you’ve learnt about the importance of mental health in the wake of the pandemic?

I think mental health has become increasingly more mainstream, particularly conversations about mental health.

At caba I’ve learned two lessons: The need to be more open and congruent about mental health, the need to have role models; and the need for adequate and effective support for people – from conversations, through to the support that comes with having mental health first aiders, and, in some cases to interventions such as psychotherapy or counselling.

There are indications in our survey that, as a profession at large, we perhaps lag behind others in terms of normalising and talking about mental health.

We know that we all have mental health, and we are often very good at managing our own mental health, with breaks from our screens, exercise or taking walk or lunch away from our desk. Organisations can do more though, they can be accessible and inclusive, a safe place to talk about mental health, stress and anxiety.

What are some of the unique challenges that accountants face when it comes to mental health?

It’s a very demanding profession, with heavy workloads. There’s also no room for error in work. This can be a highly rewarding career, but the evidence in the research suggests that it can also be highly challenging.

The research indicates that mental health is still stigmatised in the profession – more so than other professions. This stigma is doubly a challenge for someone managing their mental health.

Working in an environment where there is psychological safety helps us all perform. Only one in 10 feel they can talk to line manager about their wellbeing. If you’re struggling with mental health, this is worrying. It’s a challenge to firms and to the profession, as well as to accountants as colleagues.

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