How to support and prevent common CPA mental health issues including anxiety, depression, stress, and burnout.
Is mental health an afterthought in your CPA firm? In a busy line of work like accounting, it’s easy to ignore mental health…until it isn’t.
Poor mental health can be devastating to workplace morale, productivity, and the bottom line. In small organizations especially, when one team member is unwell, those negative effects are magnified.
Today, nearly 1 in 5 people in the United States live with some kind of mental illness. (Statistics are similar in Canada and the UK.) That number is even higher—around 1 in 4—for females. And that doesn’t account for workplace stress, which is even more prevalent.
It may come as no surprise that stress is particularly high in the accounting profession. Nearly a third of accountants report feeling stressed on a daily basis, and 42% have even considered leaving their job because of stress. While stress may seem like a given for CPAs, it can exacerbate underlying mental health issues and excessive stress can lead to burnout and/or anxiety and is also linked to depression.
It’s time we do away with the notion that the “stressed-out accountant” is normal or that mental health is an individual responsibility. We can do better.
Here are 5 ways you can support mental health in your firm—for your employees and yourself.
Table of Contents
1. Talk About Mental Health
Imagine telling a colleague you can’t make a meeting because you have an appointment with your therapist. Did the thought of sharing that info give you a momentary sense of panic or make you feel just a bit…squishy? Yup, the stigma around mental health is real.
Simply acknowledging that mental health is a priority for you and in your practice helps to normalize it. The key is to talk openly about it, on a regular basis and in a visible way (i.e. not buried in onboarding manuals).
In the words of Brené Brown, in her book Dare to Lead: “We [as leaders] have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard, and respected.”
If you feel comfortable, you might even share personal struggles with mental wellness. At the very least, it’s important to listen without judgment and drive home the message to employees that there is no stigma in your firm surrounding mental health. It’s the first step to removing the psychological barriers to asking for or seeking help.
How Melanie’s Firm Opens Up About Mental Health
I incorporate mental health and well-being into my practice in 3 key ways:
- I actively listen to my staff. This means listening for what people aren’t saying as much as what they are saying.
- I validate my team’s thoughts and feelings. This doesn’t mean I always agree with them, but I allow space for them to share their thoughts and feelings without the fear of being judged or reprimanded, so they feel heard and accepted.
- I ask questions that allow them to naturally share what they are thinking or feeling.
Using these 3 skills, I check in with my team on a regular basis to see where they are at, and what, if anything needs to be done about it.
With this, I’ve noticed that employees are more open to sharing when they are struggling, before it turns into a problem that we can’t solve together.
—Melanie Schroeder, Founder and CEO, Out of the Box CPA
2. Get Educated About Mental Health
So, you want to be “woke” about mental health and to support your current and future employees, but you don’t know where to start?
First, know that there are many different mental health issues. We’ve all heard a lot about anxiety and stress surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s easy to understand the depression that follows the loss of a loved one or PTSD after a traumatic experience. These types of (usually) short-term health issues are widely publicized.
People facing longer-term mental health disorders like major depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, and eating disorders can feel less supported and experience more stigma. They may feel they have to hide their mental illness.
You can help by first learning about the many types of disorders out there. Then, you can deep dive into how to approach mental health “on the ground”, such as:
- how to recognize signs of mental illness or distress
- how to open up a one-on-one conversation about an employee’s mental health
- resources that are available
- mental health rights in the workplace
A number of organizations specialize in this kind of training for managers and employers. One affordable example is the Working Mind, managed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, which offers manager training and can even teach you to train your own staff.
“The clearer we are about who we are and our values, the more qualified the leads are that we get, the more we like what we are doing.” —Kristen Keats, CEO and Founder, Breakaway Bookkeeping + Advising
3. Identify Mental Health as a Company Value
It may seem like a small thing, but prioritizing mental well-being in your values statement can serve as an anchor for big and small decisions you make for your firm. It’s something you can point to and build on as your firm grows.
“I find that the clearer we are about who we are and our values, the more qualified the leads are that we get, the more we like what we are doing,” says Kristen Keats, CEO and Founder of Breakaway Bookkeeping + Advising, “which creates a great work/life balance and supports the mental health of all employees.”
Plus, she says, “If we are good at communicating how we operate and what we are about, it will weed out the clients that aren’t a good fit.” A great way to set the stage for a healthy workplace? Avoid difficult clients or toxic work situations altogether.
Once you’ve established your values statement, it’s important to communicate it broadly, to serve as a motivator and empowerment tool for your employees. Kristen Keats adds, “We created a video series about how Breakaway works that we can send to potential clients and advisors as a first step. This is ingrained in our values to make work a joyful place.”
4. Design a Healthy Workplace
Let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we? Following are some concrete tools and supports you can offer to foster a mentally healthy organization.
Allow Flexible Work Arrangements
Be as flexible as you can with hours, work schedules (how employees break up their day), and work location. Recognize that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions and accommodate individual working styles when possible.
Create an Outcome-Based Culture
Prioritize output over hours. Meaning ditch any “butts-in-seats” mentality that encourages mistrust and doesn’t account for individual needs.
Offer Wellness Perks
Encourage healthy lifestyles by stressing the importance of time for breaks, exercise, meditation, and other wellness activities, including 1:1 counseling. Provide healthy snacks at work or a small stipend for remote workers. Offer benefits to cover some of these services if you can.
Check in to be sure employees are using these perks. If they’re not, it’s time to examine why: Are they at capacity? Is your culture really as supportive of this wellness time as it could be?
Humans are social animals. Yes, even the introverts among us. And, according to the World Happiness Report, a sense of belonging is the primary driver of happiness at work.
Here are a few ways you can encourage community and belonging at a small organization:
- create opportunities for social interaction, which is admittedly harder for remote workplaces; but short-and-sweet virtual coffee chats or milestone celebrations are a good start
- encourage employees to join an external industry group that has a social/community aspect; our FreshBooks Accounting Partner Program, for example, incorporates virtual events and an online community for members
- make space for fun: create conversational Slack channels to talk about your French bulldogs or food-themed sock collections or vote on a non-work activity to do together
- add time at the start of meetings to chat—especially in online meetings, we tend to get down to business immediately, losing out on those small opportunities for human interaction
Establish an EAP or Flex Benefits
Employee Assistance Programs, or EAPs, are employer-provided programs that typically include free short-term counseling. They may include additional benefits like assessments, addiction treatment, and wellness and prevention services.
Joshua Lance, CPA and Managing Director of Lance CPA Group, put in place an Employee Assistance Program that provides free counseling services to his team, as well as a $50 stipend each month for self-care. (That can include yoga, buying books, etc.) Joshua says, “Both of these provide support for our team to prioritize self-care for themselves in whatever way they feel makes sense for them.”
Similarly, Melanie Schroeder’s employees have a flex wellness spending account. “This gives them resources to use services or products that work for them, instead of just whatever happens to be covered under a plan.”
Build Your Dream Team
Your workplace is only as healthy as the people in it. Find and nurture people who believe in the culture you’re creating. Attract people who appreciate your values.
5. Implement Healthy Workflows
You can stockpile amazing wellness initiatives, but if your employees are experiencing burnout or don’t have the capacity to take advantage of them, what’s the point?
Streamline your workflows and processes to keep your workplace running smoothly and protect your mental health, especially during those month-end close or tax-season crunch times.
Here are some key ways to 10x your workflows:
- Automate, automate, automate: Expenses, bill payments, payroll, and bank reconciliation can all be automated for clients; other areas of your firm that can be automated (to some extent) include marketing and appointment scheduling. A smart idea is to identify your firm’s particular bottlenecks and look for an automated solution in those areas first.
- Move clients toward DIY for compliance tasks: The more day-to-day bookkeeping your clients do, the less grunt work for you and the more you can focus on advisory services. (Hint: This is much simpler when clients are using intuitive accounting software like FreshBooks)
- Set yourself up for tax-time success: Create a repeatable checklist for clients…and then one for yourself, too.
6. Start With Your Own Mental Wellness
You know how the flight attendant tells you to put on your own oxygen mask first, then your child’s? Your own mental health is the cornerstone to that of your staff—and benefits everyone you interact with, including clients, fellow partners, and beyond.
Furthermore, you can say you support a healthy work-life balance and self-care but if your employees and colleagues witness you chugging Red Bull, tearing your hair out about clients, and sending emails at 12:23 am, you’re sending mixed messages.
”I think the first thing is that partners and managers need to model self-care behavior for their team,” says Joshua Lance. “It’s one thing to say to your team that you support their mental well-being. It’s another to actually live that out yourself and model that.”
For instance, he says, “Make sure you are encouraging your team to take time off and, again, model that yourself. Creating a healthy and successful work environment starts at the top.”
COVID-19 and Mental Health
For many of us, the pandemic has brought some measure of anxiety, loneliness, and uncertainty. It doesn’t help that historical outlets for self-care or rejuvenation, like vacations (*sob*), getting together with friends, or simply spending some time alone (hello, parents!), are either off-limits or considerably more difficult to orchestrate.
While mental health may be more of a challenge during COVID-19, it’s also been an opportunity to learn how we need to adapt as our world changes. Remote work is no longer on the fringes. Post-pandemic, many of us will likely have to continue to work remotely and (more or less) alone.
But implementing the resources and supports mentioned here into your firm or practice can better prepare you for the next chapter, or any uncertainties down the line.
It can be hard to wade through all the information out there. Here are some places you can start in order to establish mental health strategies and supports for your firm.
NHS: Mental Health (UK)