Working for wellness
Fatigue, feeling overwhelmed and being stressed on deadlines are seen as part and parcel of being an accountant. As a profession, it’s time to set measurable targets to ensure we are working to live, not living to work.
Accountants often bond over, and wear as a badge of honour, how hard they work for their clients, particularly around key deadline periods. Working hard, particularly for others, is a noble quality.
But in the long run, normalising long hours and periods of intense demand takes a toll. You can’t serve your clients in the way you want to by pushing yourself to the threshold of physical and mental pressure.
This approach is catching up with the Australian business community, and it is manifesting in the form of depression and anxiety. According to researchers from the Black Dog Institute, almost half of the working population experience a mental health disorder at some stage in their life.
Further, the people who feel it most, are those in positions of management. David Johnston, a researcher with Black Dog Institute’s Workplace Mental Health Research Program says existing studies indicate that managers report significantly higher levels of psychological distress than other employees.
According to Mr Johnston, this increase in psychological distress has been associated with increased absenteeism and presenteeism – which means attending work, but performing at less than optimal levels. In short, instead of taking time off to recoup, Australians are pushing themselves to show up.
Unfortunately, little has actually been studied into the ongoing repercussions of these workplace patterns, in spite of their prevalence and also the increasing awareness being raised about depression and anxiety.
“Despite their substantial contribution to job generation and economic growth, there has been little research into the mental health of SMEs,” says Mr Johnston.
One person who knows all too well the mental health issues that SMEs face is former accountant, mindfulness coach and IPA Fellow, Petris Lapis. In her previous role directing a highly successful start-up, Ms Lapis suffered a debilitating collapse of her health due to severe stress.
Early in her career, Ms Lapis had a lucrative brainwave to start a business. “It was the first of its kind in Australia and it worked really well,” she describes.
“Unfortunately, it worked so well that I got too busy and so stressed that I ended up in hospital.” “I had the doctors standing around me telling me that I had to get my affairs in order because they weren’t quite sure how bad it was,” she explains.
After missing out on opportunities due to her inability to work, Ms Lapis realised that in order to move forward she had to reprioritise her mental health. “While I was in hospital my clients still got on with their lives and their businesses, but my personal life ground to a halt,” she said.
“I learnt the really hard way that if I wasn’t well, I couldn’t run my business and I couldn’t be there for my kids when they grow up,” she said.
Her frightening brush with stress informs much of her work today as a mindfulness practitioner and corporate coach. Her passion lies in helping other SME leaders learn wellbeing, soft skills and lifestyle skills, “so that they can actually manage themselves in a healthier way than I did,” she says.
Recognising when something’s not right
Mostly, the Australian business community knows and accepts that mental health issues exist, and the associated stigmas are being increasingly reduced. But where accountants stumble is identifying these issues with themselves and staff in the first instance, and addressing them appropriately.
For Leading Mindfully’s director, Repa Patel, one part of understanding the state of mental health in SMEs is recognising the pace of change in an accounting office, thanks in large to how technology has framed clients’ expectations.
“What used to take two to three years to implement is now taking two to three days,” she says.
Driving that pace of change, Ms Patel highlights, is also the shift in client expectations for immediacy, “We expect everything now!”
“How do we meet those demands when we’re a finite number of people and how do we manage those expectations while still maintaining client service?”
To keep up, Ms Patel’s small business clients often overload their work schedules. “The way we tend to respond is with ‘I’ll just do more’,” she says.
Contextualising the problem, Ms Patel finds it helpful to picture businesses broken down into three “plates”; expertise (e.g. business specialisation), clients (sales, relationships) and team (recruitment, optimising).
“It’s usually in the client and the team plates which is where most of my clients in the SME space start feeling stress,” she explains. “A lot of people I work with, know that there’s a problem but can’t quite put their finger on it.”
As the pressure mounts, more often than not, taking time to look into workplace wellness gets pushed down in priority on the daily to-do lists. Corporate coach Ms Lapis experienced this from her own stress-related illness, “There’s an enormous amount of pressure and massively long hours required to be doing it.”
“In the process you forget to eat well, stop exercising, stop going out and socialising, you think that you have to give everything to keep this wonderful exciting business going,” she says.
These mental health warning signs that Ms Lapis describes are easily, and often missed by those already juggling too much on their plates. Through his workplace mental health research at the Black Dog Institute, David Johnston recognises this trend, “We know that many people who experience these symptoms delay seeking treatment, or don’t seek treatment at all.”
Mr Johnston lists other red flags including feeling run down, irritable, angry at others, persistent and difficult-to-manage thoughts which produce anxiety, fear and/or sadness, impacted sleep or the need for more alcohol and/or sedatives to cope.
However, the difficulty in recognising these signals is that often, each person’s experience of mental health issues will vary substantially from one person to the next.
“It’s dependent on a whole host of factors, including biological vulnerabilities and even how we were taught to express and manage our emotions as children,” explains Mr Johnston.
To identify that there’s a problem at hand, both Ms Lapis and Mr Johnston suggest that listening to the people closest to us can help in telling when there’s something wrong.
Mr Johnston says, “it may be that a friend, partner or colleague makes a comment which helps a person to recognise that things are not going so well.”
He adds, “People need to know that it is never too late to seek help, and that seeking help can start with small steps, even though it might initially feel overwhelming, shameful or difficult.”
“Booking in an appointment to see your GP and turning up to that appointment is one such step, and may present a wide range of options that the person might not have known about.”
Free resources for SMEs
For SME owners who are struggling, there are a variety of resources readily available to assist in the pathway to good health.
While Mr Johnston from the Black Dog Institute highly encourages a chat to a GP, he suggests that another first step could be picking up the phone and talking to support services such as beyondblue, which runs a 24/7 phone service that is contactable on 1300 22 4636.
For emergencies or crisis support, Lifeline offers free and confidential support 24/7 on 13 11 14.
“Beyond that,” says Mr Johnston, “the Black Dog Institute website hosts a wide range of free resources and factsheets, including online self-help tools and apps to help you monitor and improve your mental wellbeing.
Ms Lapis also highly recommends online websites such as Beyond Blue (www.beyondblue.org.au) and Heads Up (www.headsup.org.au/) as valuable ports of information to direct SME owners to resources that they need.
In her personal and professional experience, Ms Lapis has also found Institute of Public Accountants’ discussion groups to be an alternate space to find support from like-minded people in the industry around issues such as mental health in the workplace.
Regularly attending them herself, Ms Lapis advises that there are discussion groups in every state for IPA members. Venue and dates of upcoming discussion groups can be found on the IPA website.
Helping you create a mental health friendly workplace
As with any kind of cultural or structural shift within a firm – it starts from the top down. Leading Mindfully’s Ms Patel believes that constructive change starts with the personal behaviours of business leaders and SME owners themselves.
In her experience as a change consultant for SME and executive leaders, Ms Patel says that people often approach mindfulness coaching armed with a “growth agenda”, focusing on pursuing ways to grow the business and not realising that the way forward is addressing their own mental wellbeing.
“I call it the ‘Inside-out’ approach, it’s about leading yourself, then leading your team, then leading your business, and then ultimately leading the industry,” she explains.
“Without them building their own capacity, they won’t be able to lead their teams or their businesses.”
The path towards wellness for SME owners can start with small adjustments. Ms Patel suggests something as easy as reserving proper downtime during the work day. “Don’t schedule over lunch. As leaders, we need to make sure that our teams are taking a break,” she suggests. “Lunch is a time that we need to disconnect and unwind.”
Adding to the list of simple wellness ideas for the business owner, Ms Lapis also advocates scheduling times in the day to switch off business emails and phone calls, exercising to burn off stress chemicals and having a hobby that doesn’t involve the business. As she puts it “We are all human first and workers second.”
When it comes to promoting mental wellbeing in the workplace, Black Dog Institute’s Mr Johnston acknowledges that this is no small task. “SMEs face unique challenges related to promoting workplace mental health, and frequently do not have the same resources at their disposal that larger organisations might have,” he says.
For ideas to make the workplace more mental health friendly, he recommends starting at Black Dog Institute’s ‘Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace’ resource. The guidelines, which can be found online, help to craft supports that best fit individual work environments. Similar guides exist with associations like beyondblue.
With the momentum of national awareness behind us, now is the right time to be prioritising wellness into your work and practice – in fact, it’s over time.