Beyond counting: accountants find themselves in emotional conversations with clients and staff due to the pandemic

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Accountants are finding their role as agents and employers is extending to mental health and emotional support.

According to the Centre for Mental Health, at least half a million people may experience mental ill-health as a result of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. The economic uncertainty and isolation has been emotionally taxing for many business owners, and with unclear prospects in the first months of 2021, the pressure shows no signs of easing.

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Accountants are having challenging conversations with clients, far beyond the realms of numbers. Business owners are opening up to them about their fears for their future, their struggles with pandemic restrictions and even suicidal thoughts.

At the same time, accountants are dealing with the impacts of the pandemic. According to the accountants’ well-being charity CABA, accountants are busier than ever, covering the work of furloughed and isolating colleagues and providing constant advice and work around lockdown measures for their clients.

We asked accountants their experiences of dealing with clients’ well-being.

Accountants have been under immense stress providing extra support to clients but at risk to their own mental health

Carl Ford, director, Carl Ford Accountancy

My team and I have been subject to the same lockdown restrictions as others, but on top of that we’ve had to be super responsive to the tax changes and furlough rules to support and reassure clients who are equally stressed and concerned. This places a huge strain on the mental wellness of myself and the team.

The accountancy profession is also very deadline-driven, so the pressure has really been on this year with added deadlines for furlough claims, against a backdrop of near-constant tax rule changes.

How have you helped? We’ve always operated a sort of “open door” policy to contact with clients, liaising on a regular basis but because we have a large amount of entertainment and hospitality clients, we’ve almost had to adopt a 24/7 emergency service approach to ensure that we can help keep our clients in business to survive the financial aftershock of Covid-19.

What support would help you? Mental health has been neglected across the board for too long, particularly men’s mental health. 75% of suicides are male, for example. I would love to see a medium to long term financial safety package from the Treasury so we can plan our time and manage stress levels. I would also love to see a support body set up to specifically deal with mental health in the profession and offer an outlet.

The clients that fall into the ‘missing 3m’ are struggling the most

John Lawrence, Guida Accountancy

Long-established business owners have found things very difficult. They have suffered from the burden of making decisions that affect the livelihood of their staff, as well as concerns about their own business future. A number of clients have spoken to me about their own health and have admitted to bouts of anxiety and depression, something I’ve never heard them speak of before. Financial concerns add to this; many of my clients fall into the ‘missing 3m’ who are receiving no personal financial support from the Government.

There are also clients who have set up new businesses during the pandemic. These clients have spoken about a release from the day to day lifestyle that they were not enjoying and have newfound happiness out of adversity.

How have you helped? I have experienced my own mental health issues, so I am able to offer some support both from that aspect and in business terms. I have found that keeping my clients informed of the financial help available and making business and cash flow projections so they understand how their business will be affected has been important. Finding solutions, both short and long term has helped ease the anxiety and stress.

I have always told them to call me if they have any concerns whatsoever. Speaking to them regularly to provide reassurance both for their business and personally has been part of my service this year.

What support would help you? A lot of Accountants have suffered with additional pressures this year. Supporting clients, keeping up to date with all the changes to financial support and often working very long hours to help their clients. Mental Health is such an important issue and I believe the profession requires greater support from its institutes. The short-term availability of free one-to-one sessions would be very helpful along with regular guidance on dealing with mental health and some techniques to use to deal with issues.

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Business owners require more than accountancy; they need a support system

James Harris, director, Strivex

The most important change we have seen this year is that our clients are looking for much more than accountancy services. What has shone through is how much business owners need a support system. Fundamentally a lot of our calling during the Covid-19 pandemic has been [to be] on the end of the phone to listen, support and guide.

For many clients, the survival of their business and livelihood is at stake during the pandemic, and they are looking to their accountants to help secure their future. This is a significant emotional demand for accountants to bear.

It means showing empathy for the client’s position and using emotional intelligence to reduce the likelihood of emotional exhaustion, either through any conflict or fatigue.

Having looked at the way the accountants role has changed, it’s also important to look at this and consider how it will change things moving forward – and the skills required by accountants in order to meet these new needs.

How have you helped? Clients have taken us up on our full offerings this year to look at cash flow planning, furlough claims and loan applications. Human resources (HR) has been an interesting addition to the mix where we’ve seen a huge demand.

What support would help you? As employers, we would firstly look for people skills as a priority to ensure we are employing staff who fit our “person-centred finance” business model. We are currently putting senior members of our team through executive MBAs in order to be able to bring wider business knowledge and strategy to our client offerings.

Some staff have struggled with changing working practices but our ‘Wellbeing Champions’ have provided valuable support

 Rachel Hotham, People partner at Milsted Langdon

When you consider all aspects and implications of the pandemic, it is easy to see why some of our people have found their circumstances difficult. While some staff members enjoyed and embraced the flexibility of working from home, others have found the transition more challenging.

It can certainly be more isolating working outside of the office for extended periods of time and some members of our team have felt the loss of social interaction with their colleagues.

We recognise too that our people have faced many restrictions in their daily personal lives and for many, they have also experienced the added pressure of understanding and implementing the various government schemes to support clients.

Some of the common issues clients and staff have experienced include:

  • Isolation and loneliness
  • Lack of socialising or missing activities they once enjoyed
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Balancing family responsibilities.

However, it’s important to note that every person suffers from a unique and varied set of concerns which will be very personal to them; no two people are the same and so the response and support offered needs to flex and be bespoke to fit our clients’ and employees’ needs.

How have you helped? We have already identified and trained a number of dedicated ‘Well-being Champions’ who can support colleagues who may be struggling. In our view, our profession should proactively work to overcome the stigma around mental health by investing in good mental health support for firms and professionals within the industry.

What support would help you? Many employees have struggled with changes to working practices and restrictions to daily life, so firms must invest in good mental health programmes to support their people.

The pandemic has been turbulent for clients and staff, but we kept or heads

Mahmood Reza, owner, Proactive Resolutions

The effect on staff and clients has been mixed. In the early days of the pandemic, loads of scare stories emerged and the business landscape moved from positivity to ‘what the heck?’.

My staff were initially worried about job security, their own health and that of their family and friends. I gave them time off, guaranteed their jobs, make the office covid secure. Some clients did the equivalent of hiding under the duvet. The level of calls and reaching out increased as clients and others reached out for answers. Business uncertainty, health threats, and impact to livelihood are a toxic mixture.

How have you helped? Pretty much from day one, we published information and translated government guidance into plain English. We informed clients and other businesses what was going on. Live broadcasts, Q&As, regular e-mails, blogs, cash flow tools and tips on well-being became the order of the day. We took a positive outlook, kept a sense of humour and responded to change promptly. 

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

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