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The wellbeing panel at AccountingWEB Live Expo
David-Frederick

Accountants put wellbeing back on the agenda

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During the pandemic there was a groundswell of accountancy firms addressing wellbeing in the workplace, but recently that initial enthusiasm has drifted away.

 

1st Dec 2022
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As the recruitment crisis continues to vex the accountancy profession, and stood out as one of the key themes on Day One of AccountingWEB Live Expo, questions were raised about why accountancy firms have seemingly lost interest in wellbeing and mental health. 

As firms pivoted to working from home during the Covid pandemic, the accountancy profession embraced the importance of mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. This was evident in previous years’Accounting Excellence Award entries, but last year it was noticeably absent. 

Lucy Cohen, the co-founder of Mazuma, hosted a panel discussion in the Any Answers Community Hub theatre on Day One of the Expo where guests from across the profession discussed their approaches to ensuring wellbeing was part of the fabric of their firms. 

All-inclusive workations

Rachel Harris, the founder of Accountant_She and striveX, explained how she offers her employees a benefits package that she “would have liked as a young person”. 

This means not an apprenticeship or minimum wage, but feeling happy, safe and comfortable in work. One of the perks Harris provides to her employees is an all-inclusive holiday for the whole team to work remotely. “Having the opportunity once a year to go together on an all-inclusive holiday is a really lovely opportunity to spend time with each other in our natural habitat and build some relationships,” she explained.

Harris called the “workation” a bit of a “no-brainer” because, as an accountant that keeps a close eye on data and analytics, she realised that the average cost to replace a member of staff in the UK is 75% of their annual salary. “So for us as accountants that’s probably like £25–30,000 to replace somebody, but a two-week inclusive holiday is a lot cheaper than that.” 

Alongside supporting the wellbeing of their employees, the holidays also provide huge corporate commercial benefits. “While we were away, through creating content talking about the location and advertising the fact that we have a waiting list for people wanting to join our firm, we had 25 people join the employee waiting list – just by talking about the fact that we have a workation every single year.”

Genuine wellbeing

But while some firms are rolling out innovative workplace schemes, it’s easy for practices to settle for low-effort solutions like signing up for a box of fruit or offering a duvet day and feel like they’ve ticked wellbeing off their list. 

Cohen admitted that while they have incentives such as employee assistance programmes as part of onboarding, in the past she’s felt like they've not done it well. “As an employer that becomes a frustration,” she said. “You feel it.”

Emma Slaven from Acas, acknowledged that, for employers, wellbeing is “extremely tricky” but she stressed that it “needs to come across as genuine and it needs to because we genuinely care about people”. 

The problem a lot of firms have is they see wellbeing as a “tick-box exercise”, she said. “So on one hand, my manager is saying they really care about my wellbeing, but on the other hand, they see me work excessive hours, and they’re giving me an excessive workload and not doing anything about it.”  

That’s where the firm’s approach and their behaviour towards wellbeing has to be embedded into everything they do. “What we see from organisations is they have a fantastic wellbeing policy and it looks great and does great initiatives. But in terms of the day-to-day management and the day-to-day where people are supported, it just doesn’t match up.” 

Slaven encouraged attendees to do staff surveys to find out exactly what their employees want. Whether it’s a yoga session or a book club, Slaven stressed that there is not one size that fits all. 

The warning signs

But even if you think you’re doing everything right, sometimes it might feel that something is still not gelling for some staff members. If this is the case, Slaven advised attendees to look for some classic warning signs, which start with knowing your staff and knowing what’s normal for them. 

“Everybody will behave differently,” she explained. “So maybe in team meetings, you’ve got somebody who’s always really vocal. Maybe all of a sudden they go really quiet. Maybe you have somebody who’s normally really positive and all of a sudden they become quite negative.” 

So it’s knowing what’s normal for your member of staff and spotting that change. Once you’ve spotted that change, it’s not necessarily rocket science. It’s just speaking to them.”

She added, “Very often you’ll get, ‘Oh, It’s okay, I’m fine.’ But just a bit of encouragement saying: ‘Well, you know I’m here and we’ve got mental health first aiders. Come back to me if you want to talk.’ Then it’s just keeping a watchful eye over that person. But there is a responsibility on that person to come forward with that information – you can’t force people to have those open conversations.” 

Hybrid becomes out of touch

Many firms have shifted to a hybrid workplace as a result of the pandemic but for some firms this approach has left some employees feeling isolated.  

Harris agreed that “connection is important” and has one set day a week where the team can come together and maximise their relationships. But she also recognised that while working remotely, there needed to be a practical solution to ensure that the other four days of the week employees don’t feel like they’re working alone. 

She wanted something to replicate when you’re having a bad day in the office, and you’re huffing and swearing about a client, and your colleagues are able to pick up on your heightened stress levels as they walk past and offer a cup of tea. So the firm has a company “ejector seat” emoji that the employees can send to anyone in the firm and it means: “I’m having a bad day and I don’t want to type it over Teams. Please can we have a chat and a cup of tea?” 

“When you’re having a bad day and you’re working remotely, sometimes it is easier to sit there and have a rubbish day. Whereas actually, if there’s something that you don’t even have to put into words – that you can literally send to anybody and within five minutes they call you – it really just gives you that sense of togetherness,” explained Harris. 

Don’t do it alone

But as one attendee of the session pointed out: no matter how much a firm may check in and care for their colleagues, they’re trained accountants and not experts in mental health. 

But, as Cohen said, this is the point you call in a professional. “Part of running a business is understanding where your skill set ends.” 

Gordon Berry from Armadillo has a morning huddle with his team and he uses this to discuss any problems his staff may have had. But he realises that while there are many resources available, “I’m a trained accountant and I can’t be everything to everybody, so I have somebody that I can contact or bring in.”

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