Date posted: 4/09/2020 8 min read

Keeping a check on mental health

The COVID crisis is far from over, so it’s important to prioritise your mental health, and that of your clients.

In Brief

  • It’s vital that CAs look after their own mental health and seek help when it’s needed.
  • When a staff member or client comes to you with a problem, it’s OK to not have all the answers.
  • Create a culture in which people feel safe to ask for help if they need it, and where everyone knows how to access support.

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 serious mental health issue

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.

Knowing when to seek help

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.

Be prepared for difficult conversations

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.

Zac HayesPicture: Zac Hayes, principal of HA Accounting.

How to promote staff wellbeing during COVID-19

1. ASSESS. Work out where to start.

Goals may be immediate or long term as the situation changes. The first aim is to promote safety and support, so assessment is about asking what people need.

2. PLAN. What’s the best way to get there?

Don’t do it alone. Talk to other managers or trusted colleagues to get advice. We are all having to learn on the go.

  • Think about who needs to be involved, what resources you will need and how to ensure ongoing engagement.
  • Initial planning will focus on how to communicate with your team.
  • Talk to your people about what’s needed and what would help.
  • Find out what government resources are available.
  • Look to industry associations and professional bodies, such as CA ANZ.
  • Look at what is happening in your local community and from culturally relevant sources.

3. DO. Take the first step. Take action, start small and build on success.

Make sure you have clear messages, and everyone knows what is happening.

  • Involve key leaders and staff to champion activities.
  • Letting people know you don’t have an answer yet, but you are working on it is an action.
  • Communication should be aimed at reducing stress and helping build people’s personal skills to respond.

4. REVIEW. What worked, what could be improved and what’s next?

  • Ask how people feel things are going and if there have been any changes.
  • Check in via one-on-ones and team meetings, which then leads to reassessment, future plans and further actions.

Source: COVID-19 Workplace Resources, Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.


Practise kindness and compassion

Realise that many of your clients are facing financial strife. Make some fees discretionary or reduced. Encourage them to pass on the kindness to their customers.

Donate services or products to those who need it most.

Suggest clients should adapt their businesses to address what the world needs now.

Source: Business Continuity through COVID-19 and Beyond, CA Catalyst, bit.ly/continuity-covid


Need support or information?

Lifeline Australia
13 11 14

Lifeline NZ
0800 543 354 (0800LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP)

Beyond Blue
1300 22 4636 or go to
beyondblue.org.au

Black Dog Institute
blackdoginstitute.org.au

Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand
mentalhealth.org.nz

From the CA Library

Feeling Good Therapy offers strategies and techniques to understand stress, anxiety and phobias and deal with their causes and symptoms.

Download the audiobook at bit.ly/feeling-good-therapy