IWONA TOKC-WILDE, journalist
A study carried out by CABA (Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association) shortly before the covid19 outbreak found that one in four accountants was suffering from stress because of the "pressures" they faced at the job. Heavy workloads and long hours were cited as the main contributing factors.
The possible impact of such prolonged stress on employees’ mental health has been long known, and often ignored. The pandemic has now turned it into a number one concern. In a recent CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) survey, 67 per cent of employers have said that supporting their people’s mental wellbeing is a bigger challenge than deciding on the best way to respond to the crisis as a business (49 per cent).
"We have faced huge demands and extra workload, fielding mountains of questions from clients and the wider community," says Luke Desmond, founder and CEO of Crisp Accountancy. "We’ve also been trying to remain positive for clients who are facing a terrible time themselves, which has taken its toll on our staff, too."
The pressure to continue as normal while working from home has added to the mental burden. "That’s because this situation is in fact far from 'normal'," says Ruth Farenga, mindfulness coach at Mindful Pathways. "Employees have had to adjust to a 'new normal', including looking after children who are usually at school or being separated from elderly relatives and other aspects of life. And there is also the bereavement of losing loved ones, which will be hard for many."
The impact of loneliness and isolation mustn’t be underestimated, either. Andy Salkeld, accountant and author of Life is a Four-Letter word: a Mental Health Survival Guide for Professionals, says, "There’s a very real risk of depression and anxiety, which are serious illnesses that are likely to go unchecked. The pressure to work as normal can lead to people sweeping them under the carpet and leaving them to come back at a later date."
He adds that absolutely anyone can be affected. "From the most sane and hyper-rational to the most emotional and neurotic, we are all struggling at the moment."
Furloughed or laid-off staff may be particularly vulnerable. Desmond says: "Some may feel like they’ve been abandoned by the employer, and many will be very anxious about what happens at the end of the furlough period - will they have a job to return to?"
Others have lost the sense of purpose that work normally gives them. "And we know that if people don’t feel a sense of purpose, their mental health is often affected," Farenga says.
Communication is key
Fortunately, with the right support from you, your staff can settle into the new routine until life (and work) does return to normal.
"First, accept that your team may not be able to work at full capacity," says Salkeld. "Get them talking about how they’re struggling and what they’re feeling. The best way to do this is to share your own struggles and feelings."
Farenga adds that this sharing’ of vulnerabilities is an opportunity for you to really connect with your team. "It doesn’t have to be a bare-it-all but a bit of 'human' will go a long way."
She believes that communication – listening to employees and being responsive to their needs – is everything, both now and under "normal" circumstances.
"In addition to one-to-one video/phone calls, set up formal 'listening spaces' one to three times a week when each team member can share, uninterrupted, for a couple of minutes about their challenges. Others may want to dive in with advice, but first and foremost this is about giving people airtime and the chance to be heard."
Help them maintain the social aspect of work, too. "We encourage our team members to take virtual tea breaks to stay in touch and check in on one another," says Justine Campbell, managing partner for talent at EY UK.
She adds that the firm is also signposting their people towards mental health support available from charities.
Furloughed employees will need to find a new sense of purpose. Admittedly, this is a very sensitive situation to advise in. "But you can still try and encourage them to take up a personal project or to volunteer in the community," Farenga says.
After the crisis
Covid19 has definitely forced us to re-evaluate our attitudes to work and life. "It feels like the crisis is resetting both businesses and people," says James Simmonds, partner at UHY Nottingham. He believes that working more flexibly will probably continue when we return to the office. "As we’re moving processes and projects online, we really have to become more sensitive and accommodate how people want to work rather than impose the traditional working environment on them."
Desmond agrees: employees will be looking for more flexible arrangements to continue in future. He adds: "They will also remember how you treated them and communicated with them during the crisis. They’ll be looking for jobs elsewhere if they aren’t receiving strong leadership support. I believe a strong sense of purpose and culture will become more important when deciding who to work for, too."
Finally, remember that returning to a physical office will be yet another transition. "Some of your staff may find it hard to be around other people at first, so you’ll need to help them adapt," says Salkeld.