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Dear Nick: 'My clients are struggling with mental health'

Nick Elston advises an accountant struggling to work collaboratively with clients who are dealing with mental health problems. 

8th Jun 2020
Speaker and coach #TalkingAnxiety
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Mental health problems
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The dilemma: We've recently had quite a few situations in which a client needed to do something, eg sign off figures, or answer a simple query about a transaction. After chasing them periodically, they have eventually responded, not having done whatever we need from them, saying they're in poor mental health. How can we respond in these situations?

The response: Your relationship, as their accountant, trusted advisor, and potentially even as a friend, causes some real challenges here. The closer we are to someone, the harder it is to help them with regard to mental health.

They see us as an advisor or a friend with a different ‘agenda’ – as someone who is not a ‘solution’ to their problems. They will not buy into what you say the way they would if that same advice was coming from someone neutral.

Drawing on my experiences from my corporate days, my self-employment and also my mental illness and mental health challenges, I get this situation on absolutely every level.

As their accountant, you want the best for them and for them to interact with you, especially when you need information from them, so when that isn’t forthcoming, it can build massive frustration, resentment and even passive aggression.

As a human, you want to be able to ensure that business can be done but also you start to feel the responsibility, maybe even their burden. By pursuing them, even though you have a fair responsibility to do that, can create feelings of guilt, anxiety or overwhelm.

From their perspective, the relationship between money, tax and anxiety/stress is huge and very common, hence the massive amount of work being done around financial wellbeing now. So if they are feeling the pressure, that can either create new challenges or compound existing problems.

It’s tough because every aspect of this situation is a potential minefield.

For me, the one thing that shone through was the fact that they decided to share that with you, to be honest, open and to show vulnerability, which is a huge step for some.

But your responsibility is not to fix them.

Your responsibility as a human, not just as an accountant, is to actively signpost them to help – organisations such as Mind UK, Mental Health UK, NHS, Time To Change, etc – so find good links you can send them.

Essentially, in life, we all want to be heard and understood. If we feel that happens, we will very often find our own way forward.

From a professional point of view, try going back to that process I often refer to called “cold processes”: take the emotion out of it, whilst being respectful and compassionate.

So, if they need to complete actions to be able for you to do that job, try contacting them across several ways, including phone, email or text message. If you get no response, then write a letter (recorded), just explaining that “if you can’t help me do this, then I can’t help you do that”, then highlight the potential threat of not doing those things.

But again, always give them other signposted options on the mental health front. Take this on in a ‘human-centred’ approach. How would you help your best friend?

If they don’t respond, you can make a decision on whether you need to discontinue working with them, with the knowledge and recorded history that you have done everything you can – on every level.

But, try and go easy on yourself. That’s all we can really do.

The dilemma this month was based on the Any Answers question: Clients struggling with mental health.

Nick Elston is hosting an online workshop on 1 July, where he's helping accountants strengthen their communication skills. You can find out more information here.

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By carnmores
09th Jun 2020 14:59

I agree with some, though not all, of this I had a mental meltdown just over 2 weeks ago and had to be dug out of my flat in London and sent to stay, after consultation with my doctor, with kind friends in the country. If we are really struggling sometimes it's not enough just to point to where to get help sometimes you need to take them there. I have received medication and help and am pretty much back to normal . But thank you very much for the article.

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By rockallj
09th Jun 2020 10:33

@ Carnmores - so very sorry to hear of your meltdown.
It has been very tough on us accountants with worries about our own positions and the added concerns of clients and their problems too.

Our workloads have risen exponentially and sometimes, the amounts of changes, amendments, guidance, changes to guidance v2,3,4,5 etc. is just too much. And then there's the cabin fever of working from home too.

Please do make time for yourself whenever you can (easier said than done, I know only too well). Turn the PC, phone, email off, give yourself a treat and at least a night or two off a week, without fail.

You are no good to anyone if you're no good to yourself.
Good luck.

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