So how can accountants help?
The first thing to acknowledge is that accountancy itself could be a stressful profession. The nature of the role, together with studying for exams, can create extra pressure. Accountants can start by helping themselves, focusing on their own mental wellbeing to reduce the risk of suffering from stress, anxiety or other mental health challenges. From there, they can start to help others.
“You need to look at your sphere of influence and sphere of control. Start with your peers, and your teams,” Jonny advises. “Accountants have got credibility and are well placed to do this. They can think about stakeholders, what’s appropriate for the organisation, and shape the language around this.” Organisations like Rethink and Mental Health at Work have toolkits to help develop programmes.
He suggests four ways that Chartered Accountants can start advocating effectively for mental wellbeing in their own workplaces.
1 Get involved
If you’re interested in the area of mental health, your organisation may already have some programmes or initiatives.
Find out what your organisation is doing and how can you get involved, whether it’s by becoming a mental health champion or wellbeing champion. Whatever you feel passionate about or volunteer for, don’t be afraid to put your hand up, Jonny says.
2 Create the right environment
Talking openly about mental health doesn’t come easily to some people, so it’s important to establish a psychologically safe space where people are comfortable opening up about challenges they may be facing.
Talking is really important. Think about where you have a conversation with a colleague, mentor, line manager, or your team and where you can create a space to have that conversation, and how you craft it. That might be about asking them what gives them low energy or how they are really feeling, Jonny says.
3 Listen attentively
In an office setting, sometimes it’s easy to see if colleagues are not their usual selves. But in these times of remote work, it’s not always easy to tell from a Zoom call if someone might be feeling negative emotions.
We don’t expect line managers and colleagues to be healthcare professionals. But what you can do is listen with compassion and empathy and help create that environment of psychological safety, Jonny suggests.
4 Use language carefully
Although it’s now much more accepted to speak about our mental health, both positively and in terms of our challenges, some people may feel it has negative connotations. One way to address this is to think about the words that will resonate. When Jonny got involved with wellbeing initiatives in his time at pladis, calling the programme ‘Positive Minds’ helped to reduce the stigma around the subject.
Why wellbeing in the workplace matters
There are many good reasons to connect mental health with the workplace instead of treating it as an issue people need to address on their own, Jonny believes.
We’re humans, we don’t leave our personality at the door. Some organisations talk about bringing your whole self to work, or about feeling comfortable in the workplace. I think it’s very difficult to separate your personal life and your work life. On average, one in four people will suffer from some form of mental ill health. We could all be touched by mental ill health in some way, and we all have mental wellbeing, therefore how can you leave that behind when you walk into the workplace?
At the same time, work itself can be a source of stress, but Jonny says many people won’t talk to their line manager about difficulties they may be experiencing because they worry it could limit their career opportunities. And since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, feelings of depression, anxiety, loneliness escalated significantly. Some mental health professionals anticipate a crisis in mental health as a result. “At some point, that will cycle back to business,” he says.
The business case for positive mental health
Analysis by Deloitte in 2020 estimated that poor mental health costs employers in the UK up to £45 billion every year. The same research found that for every £1 an employer invests in supporting employees’ mental wellbeing has a £5 return. In simple terms, supporting our mental wellbeing can create more productive and creative environments.
Jonny welcomes this kind of analysis but warns of the risk in trying to measure the immeasurable. It might be a cliché that accountants love numbers but with a subject like mental health, Jacobs believes it’s important to take a wider view of the issue.
You can measure things like productivity, net promoter score, or staff turnover, but if you get too stuck, you might move away from the moral argument. Seeing mental health just in terms of investment and return has got to be balanced with what we’re trying to achieve for humanity.