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Accountants To Get Dedicated Mental Health Service As Wellbeing Worries Rise

This post originally featured on the Australian Financial Review.

Professional body Chartered Accountants ANZ will launch a dedicated mental health programme from the middle of the year amid concern about the wellbeing of its 117,000 members.

The body currently refers members to support group beyondblue but will set up a service that promote awareness and train members and CAANZ staff in providing support for those suffering from mental health problems.

“We don’t have any data about mental health in the accounting profession, but we know anecdotally that it is an issue,” said Sue Ashe, a CAANZ spokeswoman.

“As a result, mid-year we’ll be launching a dedicated mental health programme for our members.

“The project will provide access to mental health support for members in their individual capacities as well as in their roles as colleagues, employers and as service providers to clients.”

Professionals express their views about admitting to a mental health problem at work. Les Hewitt

Research into mental health in the professions has tended to focus upon lawyers with a widely-cited 2009 study finding lawyers had more than double the rate of distress of the general population, and roughly half had experienced depression.

The lack of research and a reluctance to speak out means there is also no way to effectively gauge the level of either mental health problems or even general workplace disputes in professional services firms.

So it is unclear if cases such as ex-PwC accountant Michael Bradley who settled a workers compensation claim and former Deloitte accountant Paige Choi won a disability discrimination case against the firm are representative of industry-wide problems.

The CAANZ move will bring the accounting body into line with the law societies which have well-established mental health support services for members. The major law, accounting and consulting firms all offer Employee Assistance Programs and other support services.

Reluctance to speak out

However, staff across the professions continue to feel it will hurt their careers to admit to having a mental health problem, said Malcolm Hopwood, the president of The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.

“We know there is a high level of stigma is still attached to saying you have mental health problems,” Professor Hopwood said.

“They don’t seek help, they feel it will be used against them.

“The employer in any circumstance has to set up an environment which encourages people to get the help they need.

“Old fashioned views like the idea that depression and anxiety are due to moral weakness are not valid in this day and age.”

A telling finding from a survey from 2011 of 18,000 professionals by Beaton Research and Consulting revealed that more than one in five respondents, which included accountants, engineers and lawyers, felt their organisation would put them on a performance management plan if they revealed they had a mental health issue.

‘Litmus test’

Clinical and organisational psychologist Peter Cotton said professional services workers were particular attuned to the potential career consequences of asking for help.

“It’s partly also about how mature organisations are,” said Dr Cotton. “Law firms have been through these issues and they tend to be more sophisticated in how they respond.

“Technically, if you have a mental health issue you can’t be performance managed in a normal way. The firm has to manage it in a different way.”

Dr Cotton said that the maturity of the organisation is easy to check: “The litmus test is how well you think you’d be supported in the workplace if you told them you had a mental health problem.”

Another expert, workplace consultant Rebecca Michalak said that research shows that the usage rate of Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) ranges between three and six per cent in professional services firms, compared to between five and ten per cent across all companies.

“There are many reasons but key ones include employees don’t want to seek counselling for fear of being identified or found out and dealt with inappropriately, and that attending EAP services require time out of the office during office ours which just adds to stress,” she said.

‘Firms too quick to blame worker’

Research by Dr Michalak from 2015 of more than 800 white-collar professionals, including engineers, accountants and consultants, found a low level of health and wellbeing with lawyers scoring the lowest.

Dr Michalak said firms are too quick to blame the person, and not workplace factors when a mental health issue arises.

“There is a widespread, ill-informed perception within professional services that some employees ‘are just not tough enough’, when in fact, if you take an employee with no individual level psychosocial risk factors [of mental health issues], put them in a high psychosocial risk environment, and or give them high psychosocial risk work to do, they are likely to develop issues with their mental health,” Dr Michalak said.

She takes the view that the way traditional, partnership-led professional services firms are run as leads to a host of mental health risk factors for workers.

“Old-school, autocratic, dictatorial and laissez-faire leadership behaviours are prevalent at these firms,” Dr Michalak said.

“Employees are promoted into leadership and management roles based on technical competence, not because they are good leaders or managers, ‘leadership’ programs are often focused on business development skills, not on effectively leading and managing knowledge workers for sustainable performance.

“Also, leaders and managers are often still expected to be on the tools – they simply do not have the ‘time’ to actually lead and manage properly.”

For help or information call Lifeline on 131 114 or beyondblue on 1300 224 636.

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