Accounting for mental health in a world of numbers
Isabella Segal shares her experience regarding mental health issues within the accounting profession and the work still to be done.
In 2013, I transitioned to live my life as Isabella. Up until then, I had lived with clinical depression and anxiety which for me were because of my gender identity issues.
Living my life in my true gender has removed the depression issues but I still must manage anxiety. As I understand the statistics, transgender people have a higher rate of mental health issues than the general population.
The accountancy profession is a challenging job – especially for individuals living with anxiety or depression. There is always always a deadline to deal with – be it filing accounts at Companies House or with HMRC or filing Income Tax Returns or other tax election deadlines. I have to constantly manage my anxiety.
My first bout of depression in the profession came in 1988. I was a junior partner in an expanding firm. The gender issues, depression and anxiety made me seize up. I spent about six weeks off work, four weeks of that in hospital.
Things were different back in 1988, and it was subtly made clear to me that as a result of my mental health issues, my promotion prospects in that company were limited. I could remain, but it was unlikely that I would progress any further. Like the football manager – we parted company by mutual consent.
Mental health issues in the accounting profession have thankfully come a long way since 1988, but I feel there is still a long way to go.
Some accounting firms are, in my view, paying nodding respect to mental health issues. They can subscribe to a counselling service and make this known to staff or send out newsletters but are the firms really making an effort to interact with colleagues who may be struggling with their mental health and help them address the issues.
The warning signs
We need to learn to spot the warning signs. When people aren’t behaving in their normal manner, we should try and approach them to see if they are ok.
If someone at work suddenly goes off the grid and isn’t getting in contact, it might be a sign that they are struggling with depression. Similarly, you may notice an individual’s behaviour is different or work is unusually not of the expected standard or delivered on time.
If you are concerned that any of these warning signs are relevant to someone in your firm, then perhaps go to someone senior in the firm and let them know your concerns. Encourage them to actively reach out to this person and see if they need help.
The mental health champion
What I have in mind for a firm is to have a mental health champion. Someone who is willing to be a point of contact for their work colleague(s) who may have mental health concerns.
The champion is someone who can be approached on a confidential basis. I don’t think this should be HR as the individuals may be concerned that disclosing mental health concerns could affect their future prospects in the firm. The champion is to be an ally who tries to point the individual in the right direction to get professional help.
In my opinion, the champion should be a senior person in the firm; their role is strictly confidential and drives home the senior management message that there is no shame in having mental health issues.
The champion should take some mental health first aid training before being “nominated”.
I struggled with clinical depression and anxiety for many years. I have experience and recognise the symptoms when they creep up on me. Thankfully depression no longer is a concern for me.
Years of therapy have given me tools to deal with my anxiety when it arises. I use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and gentle exercise (walking and cycling) to lower the anxiety. I still talk with a therapist regularly, but this is more maintenance than acute issues.
For my part, I try and help by letting people I work with know that I have suffered from mental health issues in the past. My door is always open but there is only so much I can do.
Responsibility of the firm
We have over a hundred people in my firm, so we have resources. Possibly, we have more resources than small firms, so we may be able to do something about work colleagues’ mental health concerns.
Small firms with two or three people may not have the ability, finances, time or desire to deal with mental health issues. This is a difficult situation.
There is, I feel, still a stigma about mental health issues. People don’t necessarily want to share these personal and private issues with the people they work with, so it’s very hard to detect them at work.
It’s more about being reactive. You can’t force individuals to talk to you. All you can do it provide a safe haven and say “we’re here, we welcome talking with you” and try to give them the tools to help.