Five steps toward a more caring, compassionate mental health culture
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Five steps toward a more caring, compassionate mental health culture

6 months ago · 5 min read

On the eve of this year’s Country Music Hall of Fame inductions, a heartbreaking message reverberated around the world. Naomi Judd’s tragic passing is another sobering reminder of the millions who suffer from mental illness. Her daughters’ cries of grief also spotlight the millions of families, friends and caregivers who struggle, often in the shadows, to deal with the impact of another person’s mental illness on their life.

Prior to her death, Naomi Judd talked and wrote openly about her battle with depression and anxiety in hopes of saving others from suicide, which tragically ended her life. A growing roster of high-profile celebrities and athletes, including Michael Phelps, Lady Gaga, Simone Biles, Dak Prescott, Naomi Osaka and DeMar DeRozan, among others, have also shared their personal struggles as they seek to erase the shameful stigma of mental illness and encourage those suffering to get help.

What now?

While many positive strides are underway, there is significant work to do. According to Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Mental Health at Work Report, “The future of workplace mental health is culture change — of openness, transparency and compassion from organizations and leaders, of safe and supportive environments for mental health, of healthy and sustainable ways of working.” It’s a call to each of us to play our part in creating compassionate, caring workplaces that support those struggling and help them get the assistance they need to feel like themselves again with confidence and dignity.

Be in the know

  • According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults live with a mental illness

    • 40 million adults (18%) experience anxiety disorders each year, making anxiety the most common mental illness in the U.S (according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America)

    • An estimated 21 million adults (8.4%) in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in the past year (according to Mental Health America)

    • An estimated 46% of people who died by suicide had a diagnosed mental health condition and 90% of individuals who died by suicide experienced symptoms of a mental health condition (according to the National Alliance on Mental Health)

  • Mental illness (or mental health disorders or conditions, as they are often called) is defined “as changes to an individual's behavior, emotional response or thinking that lead to distress or problems functioning in social situations, work or family life.” They can range in in severity and frequency from a single episode to ongoing or relapsing. Anxiety, depression, eating and sleeping disorders, and addictive behaviors are common examples.

  • A mental health condition doesn’t result from one event or because someone is at fault. Research suggests that genetics, environment and lifestyle influence whether someone develops a mental health condition. A stressful job or home life makes some people more susceptible, as do traumatic life events. Biochemical processes and circuits and basic brain structure may play a role, too.

  • Although there is no cure, there are many treatments available to manage symptoms and promote recovery

    • Having the courage to seek professional assistance is an important first step toward taking control over mental illness

    • Over half of adults with a mental illness do not receive treatment, with more than 27 million adults in the U.S. going untreated (according to Mental Health America)

Five steps toward a more caring, compassionate culture

1. Set a new standard
Talent is the most precious asset of any accounting firm. Yet in today’s chaotic marketplace, firm talent is being actively recruited. Accountants are tired, stressed and burnt out after another demanding busy season. There has never been a more important time for each member of your team to feel supported. Whether they are seeking a solution to a client’s financial problem or assistance with their own mental health, it is critical your people feel comfortable asking for help.

Be the firm leaders and professionals that set a new standard. Be the ones who openly demonstrate care and compassion for their teammates. Strive to use supportive words and actions, rather than leave employees and colleagues to fend for themselves. When a teammate takes PTO, don’t expect them to check email or be available for an hour-long client meeting. When a new manager needs to talk about their anxiety around meeting deadlines for the increased client load, do all you can to create a non-judgmental environment where they feel supported.

Ask yourself the following:

  • What are you doing to create a compassionate, caring firm culture?

  • Do your actions support and advocate for your team’s mental health?

  • Are you and your colleagues encouraged to ask for help?

2. Find courage in vulnerability
There is a growing movement to talk about our mental health struggles at work. For some, this can seem uncomfortable, invasive, even counter intuitive - especially for those of us who were taught that being tough is part of the formula to success. The shared experience of two-plus years of COVID lockdowns has helped us let down our guard and show others that we are human.

While vulnerability can evoke fear and weakness, exposing our flaws can also be courageous. It connects us and makes us relatable and vulnerable. This is new territory for most of us, and it takes giant buckets of courage and support from the top. Leaders can help by saying something like “I don’t always have it together or know the right answers in stressful situations - I need help from time to time so I can be the best leader I can be. Talking to a professional has helped me deal with difficult issues. As a result, I am even stronger and more resilient than I imagined.”

Ask yourself the following:

  • Do your firm leaders talk regularly about the importance of vulnerability?

  • Are your leaders transparent about their mental health challenges?

  • Do you feel safe in talking about your mental health at work?

3. Mind your mind
With all that is going on in your life, could you be struggling with your own mental health and not realize it? If so, you are not alone. As the Mayo Clinic reminds us, “Many people have mental health concerns from time to time. But a mental health concern becomes a mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function.” It’s important to recognize when you might need some help. And if you do, realize there is no shame in this. What signs should you be looking for? While symptoms can vary, some common ones include:

  • Excessive worrying or fear

  • Feeling excessively sad or low

  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning

  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria

  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger

If you need help, reach out to your primary healthcare provider or a mental health professional. They can help you understand your situation and discuss ways you can gain control and feel better. To learn more, check out the Journal of Accountancy’s podcast - signs you or a colleague could use mental health support.

4. Create supportive platforms to share experiences
Sharing stories of struggle and triumph can be an effective way to express personal mental health experiences. Look for opportunities to do this in your firm. Experiment to find what works best for you and your team. Here are a few formats to consider:

  • One-on-one check-in meetings with colleagues

  • Feature stories on your firm’s portal or e-newsletter

  • Internal blogs

  • Casual discussions for members of the team that want to gather, share and support each other

5. Widen your circle of support
It is very likely you have colleagues in your firm who are impacted by the mental health challenges of their loved ones. Expand your firm’s support and outreach to those with family, friends and/or caregivers who are bearing the burdens of mental health challenges such as:

  • Losing a loved one to suicide

  • Caring for a child struggling with a mental disorder

  • Confronting elder care issues such as dementia, late onset depression and anxiety

  • Dealing with stress or trauma related to Russia’s war in Ukraine or another world conflict

When trying to help your people, scrap the formality. Keep it simple and real. Let them know you care by asking questions such as:

  • How are you doing?

  • Is the situation taking a toll on you?

  • How are things going with your son?

  • How is the search going for an assisted living facility for your mother?

  • Are there areas where you need help?

Looking for more resources? Check out the PCPS mental health resources.

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