Mental health and well-being is not a trend or buzz word. It is real and must be addressed—not just in the public interest but in the interests of humanity. The COVID-19 outbreak has brought this sharply into focus. The day-to-day changes, social distancing, and vigilance are inevitably provoking anxiety and stress. More than ever before businesses, especially small enterprises, are vulnerable to ever-evolving human impacts.
As a profession, we have a general drift toward financial outcomes and focusing on the numbers. However, when we stand back from our profession, fundamentally our purpose is to improve the quality of life of those we interact with. As trusted advisors, accountants are often taken into the deep confidence of clients in their most difficult life events. This carries significant weight. This means that accountancy professionals must look after their well-being too to be of the best service to their clients.
COVID-19 has been a wake-up call to the true interconnectedness of our global societies and collective responsibilities. It is also unlikely to be the last public health crisis the world sees, and professional accountancy organizations can be invaluable resources to members and clients during these trying times.
The Institute of Public Accountants (IPA) has taken a strong advocacy and consultative stance on mental health of small business owners and can share what we have learned in the process.
Building the Evidence Base
While consulting with small business owners throughout 2017 and 2018, the IPA received a significant number of responses about the deterioration in the mental health of small business owners. This response was not predicted and became a very strong thread. What followed was an inundation of responses from members and their clients about their experiences. From tragic outcomes to business owners feeling overwhelmed, it was clear this issue needed to be examined. We expect this to only continue increasing due to the current operating environment.
We also noted a key positive trend for the accountancy profession: 95% of small business owners surveyed reported that their mental health and wellbeing improved when they engaged their public accountant. This is an important message right now—social distancing does not mean isolation. Small businesses are not alone. Neither are professionals. Phone calls, emails, and virtual meetings can still happen between clients and professional accountancy organizations (PAOs) staff to check in, assess the current state affairs, and formulate a plan together.
As a PAO, we felt it was essential to bring an advocacy focus to this issue using our research we had. We built a public campaign that culminated in a roundtable with the Australian prime minister in 2019. This led to several cross-government and industry working teams to develop policy solutions and establish funding for comprehensive interventions for small businesses. The Australian government has since developed a roadmap for reform in collaboration with the profession and the clinical community.
Practical Support for our Members
From a PAO perspective, we needed to develop practical solutions and provide an educational base for members to boost awareness and provide practical support quickly. Otherwise we risked our members feeling powerless to support their clients. This was not designed to turn public accountants into clinicians, but rather boost their capacity to identify signs of mental ill health and empower them to have robust conversations with clients.
Our objective is to ensure, where required, clients are referred to and can access clinical support as early as possible. We have rolled out the Mental Health First Aid Training and Certification in partnership with Mental Health First Aid Australia, which has been one of our most in-demand professional training programs. Furthermore, we need to ensure we provide a backstop of support to public accountants encountering these issues. Accordingly, we are piloting a professional counselling support line for members, which shows very positive early signs of impact. As our members may own their own small business, we expect the counselling support to prove particularly important.
Being Future Ready
Mental health is a long-term concern and IPA is taking a long-term approach in supporting our members. We have embedded mental health into the re-design of the IPA professional program. The first stage covers the core accounting foundations while stage two includes business strategy, data analytics, and now a focus on well-being. Our hope is that this will provide a systemic approach to developing a sustainable supply of professionals equipped to meet the challenges of the contemporary professional.
Put simply, accountants are engaged for their emotional intervention. We are almost constantly monitoring the impact of artificial intelligence on our profession. But COVID-19 has dramatically reminded us that the future is unknown. Given the high levels of uncertainty, and the critical role professionals play as trusted advisers—both personally and professionally—there has never been a more important time to address mental health and develop comprehensive plans and provide practical solutions.
PAOs: lean into the wellbeing of our profession, especially now. Supporting the overall wellbeing of our members is something we can do to truly be future ready. Challenge your members to get outside for fresh air (Associations Now has a great membership fitness challenge article). Consider temporarily leveraging your confidential ethics lines to enable counselling support to members. Most importantly, communicate to your members that you are by their side through all this. If this process improves the life of one person, surely it is worth it.