Could you spot employees who might be struggling?

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Poor mental health is affecting more and more of us; research has shown that one in three sick notes issued by GPs are now given for mental health problems. One in four people will experience issues with mental health in the workplace and this was recognised on this year’s World Mental Health Day, with the theme being mental health in the workplace.

While we know that accountancy is a fantastic industry to work in, finance professionals are not immune to stress, with 43% of those we spoke to in a recent survey saying they have suffered from stress because of work. In accounting, as in many other industries, there can be occasional long hours and pressure to meet deadlines, so it’s not surprising many can sometimes find the going tough. For someone who is struggling with mental health issues, it may be hard to talk to anyone about it, especially at work. If you’re in a management position however, it is important that you know how to spot signs of someone in your team who might be struggling, especially in light of The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which requires employers to take reasonable steps to look after employees’ mental health and welfare.

Reasons for being stressed at work

Research from Bupa has found that a third of line managers would struggle to identify if staff had mental health issues. Things that may cause an employee to feel stressed at work are:

  • A heavy workload or targets, or conversely, a workload and targets that are too light
  • Having long working hours
  • Interpersonal conflicts with others, including bullying and harassment
  • Significant change or uncertainty
  • Ineffective equipment or tools

People struggling at work could be suffering from one or several of these issues. For accountants especially, the culture of the organisation they work for can contribute to how stressed they are.

Henry Cooper, owner of Birch Cooper accounting practice, says: “Some businesses have a macho culture where you’re supposed to be the first person in and the last person out, which can increase pressure.”

How to spot the signs

Nine out of ten people with mental health problems experience stigma and discrimination, so it’s no wonder that many people find it a tough subject to broach. Employees may not communicate that they are struggling because they are nervous of how they may be perceived, or because they don’t know how to start the conversation. It may start affecting performance at work however, and if they haven’t told you about it, you may not understand why their performance has started to slip. Five signs that an employee may be struggling are:

  • Seeming less able to concentrate or being less productive than usual.
  • Becoming more sensitive to what other people say, or to their behaviour, and occasionally overreacting.
  • Taking more time off work than usual.
  • Behaving in a way that is different from how they usually behave.
  • Starting to have difficult relationships with others at work.

We found that only a quarter of accounting professionals (25%) would feel most comfortable talking to their line manager if they were feeling stressed, so being able to spot any of these signs is very important.

How to help reduce stress

If you’ve established that an employee is suffering from stress caused by work and needs help, you then need to look at what you might be able to do. Measures that could be used to reduce workplace stress include:

  • Giving them new learning and development opportunities
  • Having employee counselling services
  • Carrying out workplace stress audits
  • Having grievance and disciplinary procedures
  • Having a stress at work policy      

Employers and managers need to understand their responsibilities to employees under the law. More than half of business leaders have been approached by staff with mental health issues but just 14 per cent of companies have a formal policy in place to deal with the problem.

“Take a sympathetic approach,” Henry Cooper says.

“With any issue like that, these things don’t show on the surface. Have an open atmosphere so staff feel comfortable to talk.”

Annie Donovan, Chief Executive of KIM Inspire, a non-profit organisation that aims to provide routes to emotional well-being through a variety of activities and group work, adds: “Workplaces that are healthy and happy and positive are obviously going to result in happier and more positive staff.”

”If somebody is really struggling, it’s what are the underlying causes of that? What as a manager could you do to make sure that those problems are worked through, and that the person feels that they’re getting a sense of achievement and feeling good about themselves when they’re coming to work?”

“As a mental health charity, we would always suggest that just talking about it is the most important thing, for staff and management. Just be open about it, if somebody’s bringing a concern, you give them that space to talk about it, and to look at what can be put in place to help.”


AAT surveyed 417 students, licensed members and professional members via its ‘Green Room’ polling facility between 20 September and 3 October 2017.

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