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Mental Health Awareness Week: Accounting for kindness

By Melanie Pritchard, Corporate Wellbeing Trainer at Melanie Pritchard Success Coaching

You certainly don’t need me to remind you of the devastation caused to global economies by the Covid-19 pandemic.  This crisis has disrupted the workplace like nothing we have ever witnessed and is bound to continue to do so until a vaccine is found.  As an industry, accountancy firms are scrambling to plan for the post-coronavirus working environment.  There is a real danger however that, whilst the physical aspect of returning to work under a ‘new normal’ will be respected, the mental wellbeing of staff may be overlooked.

Mental Health Awareness Week is taking place between the 18th and 24th May.  The focus this year will be on kindness – which brings with it the perfect opportunity to remind businesses of their duties of care to their employees. 

The accountancy sector is fast paced and stressful at the best of times.  Back in October 2019, CABA, the charity supporting the wellbeing of chartered accountants and their families, found that 4 in 10 adults in the UK were close to breaking point at work.  Add a global pandemic threatening the lives of loved ones, job insecurity and economic instability, to the mix and we have a rather large melting pot ready to explode.

What can accountancies do to ensure the mental wellbeing of their staff? How can firms and team leaders offer the very best support?  As we know, stress, depression, and anxiety, costs businesses almost 70 million days off sick, and UK employers £26 billion every year through lost working days, staff turnover and lower productivity according to the Centre for Mental Health. Simply put, businesses cannot afford to not care right now. While only a small percentage of employees will contract the virus, 100% of employees will be psychologically affected by it in one way or another. 

It is vital that managers recognise that some employees may be struggling with the prospect of returning to work.  Some will no doubt be worried about travel and the very real prospect of picking up the virus to carry back home.   Some may be anxious about getting ill themselves, others will be carers for vulnerable individuals. Virus aside, there may be other legitimate reasons causing anxiety such as stress at home.

Kindness is the cornerstone of our individual and collective mental health at work. With the pandemic putting mental health on everyone’s agenda, the idea of kindness has never been more relevant to corporate health.

Let us not forget that employers and businesses have a legal obligation, as well as a moral one, to look after their staff’s wellbeing. The Health and Safety at Work Act stresses the importance of looking after employee mental health while The Equality Act states that employers cannot discriminate against people, including the disabled (where mental illness can fall). 

According to Mental Health First Aid England over 80% of managers admit to prejudice against employees struggling with their mental health and only about 20% of companies provide training to managers around the subject.  It is imperative that this changes - businesses must engage with their employees in a kind way if they want to build organisational effectiveness and comply with the law. Afterall, it is well known that happy employees are more productive.  Even the most commercially-minded manager will recognise the benefits to the bottom line – can any firm afford not to be kind today?

Accountancy firms should consider training managers in mental health awareness.  To quote Mark Foreman, Director of Trademarks at the award-winning law firm, Osborne Clarke: “Mental Health First Aid Courses should be compulsory for all line managers”  These courses teach individuals how to ask open questions and follow up sensitively, to ask proactive questions, spot a change in behaviour and give the correct reassurance. They will also be taught how to deal with someone who wants to open up as well as someone who doesn’t. 

Taking a team approach whereby open dialogue is encouraged in team meetings is another vital skill to learn, as well as how to model vulnerability and encourage coping strategies.

There are many triggers for mental illness which will no doubt be exacerbated by the lockdown and coronavirus. These may include illness itself, bereavement, financial and job worries, caring responsibilities, accommodation problems, alcohol and drug use, lack of sleep, gambling addiction, or relationship problems, to name but a few. If a colleague is struggling with one or two of these triggers, it may heighten stress and push them into mental illness.

We are all going to need to adapt to whatever this ‘new normal’ brings. Whilst some may flourish in an increasingly demanding environment, the vast majority will struggle.  Being kind costs nothing but will prove to be a valuable asset to the future of your firm if you get it right.

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