By Joshua Gliddon
Zac Hayes knew he had to step back, if only for a short time. The principal of HA Accounting, which has offices in the New South Wales southern border towns of Albury and Tocumwal, had clients coming to him in crisis, with businesses needing to be wound down or scaled back. He was working long hours and had become the de facto counsellor for the people around him – and it was taking a toll.
“I was burning the candle at both ends, working 70 or more hours a week,” he says. “I knew I needed to take some time to myself. I told my staff I was having a Friday off, making it a long weekend.”
Hayes returned to the office refreshed and ready to deal with any challenges COVID threw in his path. He says other accountants could learn that it’s OK to treat yourself occasionally.
“We can’t do it all without looking after ourselves first,” he says. “That’s the most important thing a CA can do for their mental wellbeing: Make time for yourself, take some time off and do something else.”
“The most important thing a CA can do for their mental wellbeing is make time for yourself, take some time off and do something else.”
Zac Hayes, HA Accounting
A Monash University survey of 14,000 Australians’ mental health during the pandemic found that many were feeling anxious and depressed, particularly young people, with 44.7% of those aged 18-29 experiencing moderate/severe depressive symptoms and 34% of those aged 18-29 experiencing moderate/severe anxiety symptoms. Usually, about 5% of the community reports severe low mood symptoms.
In New Zealand, a Youthline survey of 975 people conducted during lockdown found 72.7% felt the experience had affected their mental health. Among adults over the age of 25, 41% reported feeling anxious and depressed, and said they were coping poorly. But younger people felt the lockdown even more keenly, with almost half (47%) reporting they felt anxious or depressed.
In April, New Zealand’s government announced NZ$40 million in funding for mental health services so that 100 new health practices could provide free mental health and addiction services, reaching 1.5 million people.
Likewise, in Australia in May, the government provided an additional A$48.1million to support the Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan, building on the A$500 million for mental health and suicide prevention it had announced since 30 January.
After a stressful few months that saw many chartered accountants overwhelmed with work, it’s unsurprising a large number of them are feeling a little worse for wear. Many are dealing with anxious clients wondering what the future holds for them and their businesses; others are poised for difficult conversations about business and personal circumstances.
COVID still has a long way to run. CAs will be in a healthier position for the future if they look after themselves and seek help when it’s needed, Hayes says.
For many CAs, under pressure from all around, remembering why they went into accounting in the first place is an effective way to move forward, Hayes believes.
“We all became accountants for the same reason – we’re passionate about business and business owners. And under current circumstances, people – our staff and clients – need purpose and passion more than ever.”
However, it’s important to realise when you’re not coping, and to seek help immediately. If someone you work with is in the same situation, then you need to think in advance about the conversation you’re going to have, and whether you’re able to offer constructive help.
“Make it OK to talk about their experience, or your experience,” Hayes advises. “But if you can’t talk about your personal situation in an objective way with staff or clients, then you shouldn’t do it.”
The first thing to remember when a staff member or client comes to you with a problem is that it’s OK to not have all the answers. But you also need to recognise when it’s time to seek help from a colleague or mentor – or a professional organisation, such as Lifeline Australia or New Zealand, Beyond Blue or the Black Dog Institute.
Lisa Ducat, workplace wellbeing specialist for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, says communication is vital during this time. “It’s really important to be open, ask people how they are going, and be able to normalise the fact people are going to have a lot of different reactions to COVID and its effects,” she says.
“For some people, this experience will be more stressful than for others, and they’ll be looking for support.”
Margaret Dreyer CA, national leader on Inclusion, Diversity and Wellbeing at Deloitte Australia, says it’s important to have empathetic, courageous conversations during tough periods.
“My advice to other CAs would be to be true to your values, both as an individual and an organisation,” Dreyer says. “In relation to changing circumstances and the impact on people’s wellbeing, it’s important to communicate consistently about the available support, as we do at Deloitte, so our people can take care of themselves and each other.”
Dreyer also notes it takes courage to be honest about how you’re feeling and to communicate bad news. If you have a strong culture, then it opens the door to having difficult conversations, including those around challenges unique to COVID-19.
She says it’s essential to create a culture in which people feel safe to ask for help if they need it, and where everyone knows how to access support.
“We regularly communicate with our people around this and embrace storytelling to help them understand the different tell-tale signs – when things may not be OK with someone – and how they can help each other, pointing to internal and external resources,” she says.