Members in business: rethinking well-being in the office

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Mental health has been severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to data from the OECD, the prevalence of anxiety increased by 20% in the UK during 2020. Depression increased by almost 10%.

The accountancy profession has not been immune to this. Finance teams have had to adapt to new ways of working, and have had to respond to a new measure almost every week. Business leaders have put more pressure on their accounts teams to manage cash flow and help keep the business afloat – a considerable responsibility to put on their shoulders.

Add to this the isolation that many accountants have felt as lockdowns continued into this year, and you have a recipe for mental ill-health. As restrictions have eased and teams have returned to the office, more focus on wellbeing is needed to ensure that people can return to the office while feeling safe and well.

Finance managers have had to look out for their team members’ mental health while also addressing their own issues. Members of our panel share their struggles and the changes they’ve made to look after the people on their teams.

Work needs to fit us as individuals

Andy Murray MAAT, AATQB, Finance Lead, Manna Pro

The last 10 months have been challenging at times. There has been an added strain through not seeing family and friends as often as I would have liked to. I don’t think we realise how much we take these things for granted until a situation like this occurs. Being fortunate enough to work from home, I have been able to channel my energies into professional development. While there have been challenges and added pressures, I feel the daily structure has helped me positively channel my anxieties.

As expected with a global pandemic, there has been absences from work; employees taking time off due to positive COVID testing, self-isolation and family illness, which has directly impacted them. The organisation was quick to respond to reassure these employees that their health is the main concern, allowing these employees to take control of the number one priority, themselves or their loved ones.

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been driven to keep spirits and motivation moving in the right direction. This has been driven by holding weekly companywide discussions and daily team meetings to make sure that all employees are getting that daily interaction with one another (like we would over a coffee in the office or by sharing that odd laugh together whilst working).

The business has operated on a remote working basis, with only essential office visits where necessary. Once lockdown restrictions started to ease, our management took the decision to implement a flexible/hybrid working model. This allowed employees to continue working from home on a full-time basis or return to work on a hybrid model (three in and two at home, or whatever worked best for them). As long as the work is getting done and there is no impact to productivity or efficiency then there are no concerns.

This approach has been really well received. Some staff still feel more comfortable working from home on a full-time basis, while others are pleased to get back into a more ‘normal’ routine. Others do not miss the commute and like working new hours to suit childcare requirements and other personal commitments which they have.

The organisation already provided an employee assistance programme that staff could use. At the beginning of the pandemic, the decision was made to remind all employees about the benefits of service should it be required. I would personally say the company has always put their employees at the forefront of what they do.

I find being organised and having structure in both my professional and personal life helps me keep a positive state of mind. By making the best use of my time, such as listening to a podcast to contribute towards my CPD while doing household chores, I can create more time to relax and do the social things which I enjoy. Alongside being organised, I make time for exercise to increase the positive endorphins which we always need more of.

You have to be proactive with employees’ well-being

Farha Jamadar, FMAAT, finance manager, Todd Doors

The past 10 months have taken their toll, especially with the lockdown at the start of the year. As we saw the gradual reductions of restrictions, I started to remember how I used to function before Covid. Phasing back into the office also had its challenges.

The thought of going back to normality was scarier than going into lockdown. This was certainly the case for me and my team. It went from a skeleton staff and reduced work to suddenly being hit with being busier than normal. There was definitely more instant gratification with work, but all of a sudden there was so much more to do. Keeping an eye out for burnout was also important. We had regular chats with the team and dealt with any concerns. Rolling your sleeves up and getting in the midst of it all was also very important while ensuring deliverables and deadlines were met. It was important to observe the team and ensure they had regular breaks and took a day off here and there.

We were used to working from home and then we were asked to come back. We all knew it was going to happen but was a case of when. Even so, there was a bit of apprehension coming back. We all agreed to go into the office at least some of the time, which allowed us to collaborate better and work more closely. Training and communication is easier. While it was jarring at first. It’s nice to be able to go back into the office and get back to ‘normal’.

I now ask more questions such as: “How are you? Are you worried about anything?” Sharing my own battles definitely helps others open up too. Well-being is a serious issue and I feel being proactive rather than reactive or waiting for an error is important. Make sure your team is happy and their roles are fulfilling, which is a sure-fire way to ensure productivity. Team members seem more driven because I’m more in tune to their needs.

I manage my own well-being by ensuring I switch off. This is so hard when working from home and the hours can bleed into your off times in the name of making tomorrow easier. Now I’m in the office I can decompress in the car when I leave and not log on to do any more work. This has helped my well-being a lot as boundaries have gotten blurred.

We must be open about the mental health crisis in accountancy  

Eva Mrazikova, MAAT, founder of Innovation Accounting & Training and Accountancy Market Specialist for IRIS Software Group

Those months of the first lockdown were the most challenging in my entire career. The additional workload that arose from furlough, loans and businesses having to improvise has proven to be a huge one. 

I felt an enormous responsibility to be able to service all of my clients that came to me. But the working day started to blur with family time; weekends became catching up with the rest of the work, there was no proper family time anymore. Even if there was, I found myself thinking about all I had to do and all the people relying on me. 

I was worried that it was just me who wasn’t coping, that I am weak. Only after some time I have realised that many of my fellow colleagues and professionals felt exactly the same. 

The perception of accountants is that they are always “cool, composed, and have all the answers”. But inside it was a completely different matter. Many times I asked myself if there isn’t more to life than this.

Looking back, I realise I am much more resilient than I thought. I have learned to take time out and say ‘No’ to protect myself, my integrity, and my family. 

As a mental health first aider, I recognise the importance of talking to others about your feelings and struggles. I often “check-in” with my colleagues. 

I think this is the big challenge for our profession. We keep up to date with all the regulations and laws, but we often forget to ‘check up’ on ourselves. 

Managers need to listen to employees and encourage them to look after themselves.

Even when someone is smiling, they might desperately need to talk to someone. Recognising this can make a huge difference.

It’s ok not to be ok – and to admit it. Even Accountants are human beings.

Mark Rowland is a journalist and former editor of Accounting Technician and 20 magazine.

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