Date posted: 29/07/2021 8 min read

The accountant’s mental health first-aid kit

The Counting on U program provides accountants with tools to assist and refer on clients or staff experiencing mental stress.

In Brief

  • Research in 2019 found one in three small business owners in Australia reported experiencing mental health issues in the previous 12 months.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns may have increased pressures on small business owners.
  • The Counting on U training program helps CAs support SME clients dealing with mental health issues.

By Megan Breen

When Zac Hayes CA began to struggle with the stress of personal and work issues in 2019, he opened up to staff about his mental health challenges. It was a decision that ultimately saved his business – and sent a powerful message to his team and clients that it was OK to speak up about problems.

The founder and principal of HA Accounting, with offices in Albury and Tocumwal in southern NSW, Hayes had been dealing with a business venture that turned sour at the same time he was grieving the loss of immediate family members.

“I had some significant challenges in both my personal and working life that meant I had to make some big changes,” Hayes recalls.

“I spoke to my staff and clients and let them know what was happening and [informed them] that to be able to do my job to the best of my ability, I needed to have some downtime when I could.”

Hayes says it was a turning point. By being transparent with his clients and team, he was ultimately able to navigate his way out of the situation and gain the time he needed to get back to good health.

Zac HayesPicture: Zac Hayes CA.

Hayes is hardly alone. Issues with mental health – including anxiety and depression – are the biggest cause of disability in Australian workplaces. The Australian 2017-18 National Health Survey revealed that one in five (20.1%) or 4.8 million Australians were living with a mental health or behavioural condition. And almost half (45%) of Australians aged between 16 and 85 will experience a mental illness at some point in their life, the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing found (a 2021 survey is currently being completed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics).

Rates are similar in New Zealand. The 2016-17 New Zealand Health Survey found that 19% of adults lived with anxiety and 20% with depression.

But that’s the general population. Among owners of small-to-medium businesses – a sector that includes accountants as well as many of their clients – the rate is even higher.

Australian research from 2019 found almost one in three SME owners had experienced stress, depression, or anxiety in the previous 12 months. In New Zealand, 39% of small business owners said running a business negatively affected their health, states the 2019 Small Business Wellbeing Report from the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand and Xero. In the aftermath of COVID-19, those figures may be much higher.

As they’re often the first point of contact for SME owners in distress, accountants and business advisers are in a position to provide vital support. But many CAs have felt unequipped to deal with these demands, particularly after a year on the front line supporting clients through the worst of the lockdowns and withdrawal of government subsidies.

Skilling up on mental health first-aid

That’s one of the reasons researchers at Deakin Business School’s IPA-Deakin SME Research Centre in Melbourne have developed the Counting on U training program. Its aim is to help the accounting industry better support SME clients dealing with mental health issues, and get better armed to identify mental health stressors within their own workplaces, too.

“It became quickly apparent to us that there was a need coming from the accounting bodies to help their members better deal with clients who are experiencing acute distress, as well as supporting the mental health of accountants, financial planners and other business advisers,” explain the program’s creators, Deakin University organisational behaviour expert Professor Andrew Noblet and Professor George Tanewski, the director of the IPA-Deakin SME Centre.

The project, which combines mental health first-aid training with relationship-building skills, was funded through a A$2.4 million grant from the Australian government and A$1.1 million from the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CA ANZ), CPA Australia, Institute of Public Accountants (IPA) and the Institute of Certified Bookkeepers have joined forces to deliver the program to Australian members. The aim is to roll it out to 5000 accountants this year.

“Business advisers and accountants are seen as high-trust service providers, so if SME owners have a quality relationship with their business adviser, they will open up and share their stresses and burdens with that person,” says Tanewski.

“If SME owners have a quality relationship with their business adviser, they will open up and share their stresses and burdens with that person.”
Professor George Tanewski, IPA-Deakin SME Centre

“It makes a lot of sense, then, that the business adviser thinks about other support mechanisms they can provide to their client.

“This program is about giving them the tools and the language to be able to have that difficult conversation and to be able to point them in the right direction to seek professional help.”

Training can deepen client support

For Catherine Kennedy FCA, manager of CA Wellbeing, the training is an opportunity for members to learn more about how they can support their clients.

“When we were approached by Deakin University to participate in this, it resonated completely with the feedback that we’d had from members over a number of years, and also with the issues that were being exacerbated by the pandemic,” she says. “Medical professionals were at the coalface of the health crisis, but accountants were really first responders to the business crisis.

“Medical professionals were at the coalface of the health crisis, but accountants were really first responders to the business crisis.”
Catherine Kennedy FCA, CA ANZ

“We know SME owners are unlikely to reach out through the traditional health channels and, instead, come to their business adviser. This training offers guidance in recognising when somebody that they’re dealing with might be having mental health problems and how to refer them on.”

Catherine Kennedy FCAPicture: Catherine Kennedy FCA

Removing the mental health stigma

The stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns – which in Australia came directly after catastrophic bushfires and floods – have put a focus on mental health and prompted people to talk openly about a subject that was previously kept under wraps.

A two-year Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System (RCVMH) has also been completed, delivering its report in February 2021. It found the state’s health system “catastrophically failed to live up to expectations”.

Professor Allan Fels AO, director of Mind Australia and a RCVMH commissioner, says that while some progress has been made in accepting that mental health illness affects many people’s lives, there is still a lot to do in challenging public attitudes.

“There is quite widespread stigma and discrimination against persons with mental illness, especially at the severe end,” he says. “However, public attitudes are improving, particularly since COVID, and it is now much more understood and accepted when people have depression or anxiety.

“We need initiatives like this one [Counting on U] from the accounting industry, because if people see their employers are adopting a positive and constructive approach to the challenges of mental health, that will also contribute broadly to continuing improvements in community attitudes to mental health.”

Making a supportive environment

KPMG Auckland is one workplace working towards improving the support offered to employees. Kerry Butler, its head of People Performance and Culture, says the pandemic has increased the organisation’s focus on mental health, particularly as people deal with uncertainty and balancing work-life demands while working from home.

“We invited MP Chlöe Swarbrick [who is open about her experiences of anxiety and depression] to speak to the firm about her mental health challenges,” says Butler. “Her story helped challenge the stigma around mental health, that it might be weak or an overreaction or unprofessional to talk about mental wellbeing to colleagues. This led to others talking about their own mental health challenges. We hope these sorts of learning opportunities will slowly but surely break down the stigma.”

CA ANZ’s Kennedy believes the more that people in the accounting industry talk about mental health and support programs such as Counting on U, the easier it will be for people to get support.

“The fact that all the accounting bodies are standing behind this sends a message about the importance that we all give to supporting people in relation to mental health issues,” she says.

“The training is also complimentary [to CA ANZ members in practice] and provides 15 hours of free CPD, making this a fantastic opportunity.”

Counting on U changes minds

Mike Rowe CA says the Counting on U program changed the way he views mental health challenges.

“I had a sports injury a few months back and I was told to rest and then was put on a recovery program,” he says. “It made me think about what I would do if I had a mental injury. We generally don’t get the chance to rest from a mental injury or undertake the necessary recovery. In fact, the situation just gets worse.

“I thought, if I can learn more about mental health, I would be able to help friends, family, colleagues and clients who are experiencing problems. I could make a positive contribution to society.”

Rowe says the program is engaging and informative, and provided him with the skills to identify the signs of mental illness and what to do and how to help.

“In today’s world, this is a must-have for everyone, especially professionals who deal with clients and team members who might suffer from mental health problems. I highly recommend it to anyone in the industry.”

The program’s creators, Deakin Business School’s Professor Andrew Noblet and Professor George Tanewski, would like to see accountants take the initiative and introduce the techniques they have learned across their workplaces for the long term.

Mike Rowe CAPicture: Mike Rowe CA.

“We encourage people to use each other as a resource. Once they’ve undertaken the training, we have two booster sessions facilitated by an instructor where the participants talk about their experiences in applying the knowledge and skills they’ve learnt,” says Noblet.

“It’s about learning from each other about how they can overcome some of those barriers and awkward moments, and to be able to apply the knowledge in a way that can better support the mental health of clients and colleagues.”

Sign up for Counting on U

Counting on U is an Australia-wide, workplace mental health and relationship-building intervention. Business advisers, including CA ANZ members in practice, will be offered free training to better support the mental wellbeing of SME business owners. Training will be conducted online and 5000 participants will be recruited. The training is worth 15 hours of CPD for participating CA ANZ members.

Register for Counting on U training today

Support services

Mental health support for NZ and international members is available in the Tools & Resources section of the CA ANZ website.

Other support services include:


Beyond Blue: or call 1300 22 46 36

Life Line: or call 13 11 41

SANE Australia: or call 1800 187 263

Heads Up: for workplace mental health resources

New Zealand

Lifeline: or call 0800 54 33 54

Depression Helpline: or call 0800 111 757

Samaritans: or call 0800 72 66 66

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