Dr Robert Chandler is a clinical psychologist and director of corporate and workplace services at the LightHouse Arabia

The conversation around employee mental health and wellbeing surrounds us in 2023. Those leaders who believed it would fade away as Covid receded have been proven wrong.

The accounting profession is an ‘at risk’ group in terms of mental health

The conversation is here to stay and is gaining traction every day. And for good reason. Across the GCC countries of the Arabian Gulf, for example, a third of employees are currently reporting symptoms of burnout, while two in three employees either are struggling or have struggled with their mental health – that is potentially two in three people in your team.

Sector pressures

As a sector, finance and accounting has its own unique challenges which contribute to poorer mental health among its workforce: the pressure to meet tight deadlines; high levels of detail, intricacy and precision required; and the need to navigate complex regulation and processes. And these are just some of the professional demands. Add to these drivers from personal and home lives, alongside living in a time of global political and market instability, and climate change, and it is easy to see how the accounting profession is an ‘at risk’ group in the corporate world in terms of burnout, mental health and wellbeing.

ACCA’s 2023 global talent trends survey of 8,000 accountants revealed that 60% believe work pressures negatively impact their mental health. A further 70% want their organisation to offer more support for mental health. Given the significant mobility within the accounting profession, employees can switch company reasonably easily if they perceive their organisation does not place sufficient value on mental health and wellbeing. This is true particularly of the Gen Z group. If employers wish to recruit and retain talent, mental health and wellbeing must be a priority for the organisation – it is no longer optional or a ‘nice to have’ extra.

Leaders have a crucial role to play in shaping workforce wellbeing

The solution is two-fold. First, individual employees need to take responsibility for their own wellbeing, and develop mindsets, tools, strategies and means to manage the impact of their work environment. This involves things like managing stress effectively, pushing back and asserting boundaries, and developing tools to critically appraise stressful situations in different ways. Second, and just as significant, leaders have a crucial role to play in shaping the mental health and wellbeing of their workforces – perhaps more so than they may realise.

The data is clear: leaders shape the culture of their organisations. In turn, the culture of an organisation directly impacts employee experience, engagement and subsequent employee mental health. So where should leaders start when it comes to improving the mental health of their organisations?

Step 1

Lead by example. Leaders act under a microscope and speak through a microphone. As such, setting the cultural tone for mental health is imperative.

By demonstrating and discussing your own healthy lifestyle behaviour, modelling disconnection from work during evenings, weekends and vacations, and attending training courses, company initiatives and online learning on mental health, you will inspire a shift towards a mentally healthy workplace. It will be noticed by those you lead.

Step 2

Take care of your own mental health. The evidence is crystal clear: the mental health and wellbeing of a leader has a direct impact on the mental health of the team they are leading. Ensure you get seven to eight hours of sleep a night, exercise four or five times a week, eat nutrient-dense meals, minimise substances (including caffeine, alcohol and nicotine), and stay well hydrated.

These lifestyle practices will combat and mitigate your own risk of burnout and mental health difficulties, and boost your productivity, decision-making and effectiveness. Placing emphasis on the cultivation and preservation of your own wellbeing will have a cascade effect on your team.

Step 3

Build psychological safety into your culture. Psychological safety is, in its simplest form, a culture where speaking openly about struggles, difficulties or challenges is not just encouraged but also rewarded – with understanding and support.

Ensuring that your organisation has a group of mental health first aiders – employees trained to guide and signpost colleagues who may be struggling with their mental health – is a foundational step in building psychological safety and shows a commitment to improving the overall culture of the organisation.

Step 4

Implement a wellbeing strategy. To really move the needle in employee wellbeing, it is essential to have a clear and planned direction. Consider the following questions:

  • What is the current state of mental health in your organisation? You can determine this baseline measurement by creating a specific anonymous survey, with demographic information, and then target your wellbeing strategy based on the findings.
  • What external resources are available to employees? Consider employee assistance programmes, insurance coverage for psychiatry and psychotherapy, access to mental health apps, and in-house access to vetted self-help resources that employees can be directed to.
  • What is the mental health literacy of your organisation? Mental health seminars, workshops and training events should be organised to improve that literacy and promote a culture of openness towards mental health. When the workforce is more literate, deteriorating mental health can be identified earlier and dealt with more proactively.
Step 5

Enlist the support of a specialist. Knowing where to begin with improving the mental health and wellbeing of an organisation can be a daunting prospect. Outsourcing some of this responsibility and working collaboratively with a reputable organisation specialising in corporate mental health that can offer guidance, advice and consultation can be invaluable.

More information

ACCA’s wellbeing hub offers a range of resources for you to explore to help enhance your wellbeing throughout your professional journey.