Protecting your team’s mental health
What impact has the pandemic had on the mental wellbeing of your firm members? That’s an important question to ask, especially as firms gear up for another busy season. Seventy-eight percent of adults believe the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives, according to a Harris Poll conducted for the American Psychological Association. This is a good time to take a step back and consider the stressors that may be affecting your team and how to mitigate them.
Recognize the challenges. During this long-lasting pandemic—and given its impact on our families, our communities, our clients and our own firms - it seems likely there are many people who have not experienced significant mental health concerns before but who could be suffering from them now. That may be because of issues such as the change in how and where they do their work, the disruption to normal routines and activities, isolation from many family members and friends, the mingling of work and family life, and new demands related to school age children or other personal responsibilities. Another factor is the fear of the unknown. We probably all entered the pandemic expecting it to be over within a reasonable amount of time, but after many months it remains unclear when it will end so that we can all return to normal. That all adds up to make this an unprecedented and challenging time when it comes to maintaining mental health. The first step for practitioners is to be aware that employees may be experiencing a wide array of emotions including denial, anger, anxiety, fatigue and burnout.
Lead with kindness. In this time, firm leaders need to embrace a culture of safety and vulnerability that promotes open and honest conversations about personal feelings and challenges. Firm members need to be confident that they can share the emotional or personal issues they are facing without worrying about its impact on their careers. Building the right culture includes talking openly and discussing possible solutions, while recognizing the problems that we can’t control. I recommend cultivating patience and flexibility, so that firms can accept the challenges and find ways to address them together.
Offer information on help. Firms can make a great contribution to employee wellbeing by gathering information about mental health resources in their own community or online and sharing them with their team. If your firm offers access to an employee assistance program, make sure that team members know about it and understand that it can be a valuable resource. If this isn’t a resource you offer, talk to your team and gauge interest as this may be an additional benefit you want to provide in 2021. Offering staff access to tools they may need demonstrates your understanding and support.
Stop focusing on time. One quick way to take the pressure off staff is to stop using timesheets or worrying about calculating production, realization or utilization. This is a smart practice management idea because it shifts the emphasis from hours worked to value produced and goals accomplished, which are the things that really matter. During a pandemic, it can also relieve staff from accumulating and tracking hours. In addition, offering mental health or wellbeing days during lockdowns can allow staff to totally disengage without having to worry about work along with other concerns.
Be a good role model. There are two important ways that firm leaders’ behavior can enhance their employees’ mental health:
Allow your people the flexibility that you enjoy. Make sure your people have the same chances to unwind, manage their schedules or take a break from routines that you have.
Don’t overdo it. Firm owners often feel compelled to go into overdrive, especially during challenging times. That’s not great for you or a good example for your people. Give yourself a break so that others understand that it’s acceptable for them to do so, also.
With that in mind, remember that it’s important not to forget about your own mental health. That includes stepping back regularly to assess your wellbeing. Whether it’s a matter of giving yourself time for exercise or a favorite activity or getting professional help to work through the stresses you face, these steps will be beneficial to you and your firm and will show your staff that you are making mental health a priority.
Compassion starts at the top
In a small firm, the success and culture of the firm start at the top. Practitioners who consider the wellbeing of their entire team—including themselves—and nurture a culture of kindness can inspire and maintain a mentally healthy firm.
After a busy season break, my next Small Firm Solutions column will be in May 2021. I wish you and your family and team members a safe and happy holiday and new year and a successful busy season.
Journal of Accountancy articles:
Aon’s COVID-19 Insights & Resources center, including its section on “Protecting People:
Workforce Health and Wellbeing.” In particular, see articles on “Strengthening Employee Emotional Fitness: Anticipating the Needs of Employees in Response to COVID-19,” and on “COVID-19: Supporting Employee Wellbeing.”