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Clients under pressure: How to help their mental wellbeing

Practitioners can use a new online resource to help guide conversations with clients about their mental wellbeing.

Glenn Cullen | November 2019

The most important conversation many practitioners have with some clients may not be explaining new tax changes or alerting them to deductions. With more than one in three sole traders thought to be experiencing high levels of psychological distress, a simple “are you okay?” may ultimately be more beneficial than certain cost savings.

Beyond Blue, an independent, not-for-profit national body that seeks to reduce the impact of depression and anxiety in the Australian community, has released a complimentary online guide to help business advisers such as accountants and bookkeepers discuss with and support clients experiencing mental health issues.

The 13-page booklet, Heads up – better mental health in the workplace, outlines the scope of some of the issues small business owners may face, such as signs of deteriorating mental health and overall wellbeing, how to subtly raise concerns with a client and longer-term practices that can be put into place to help those at risk.

Mental health of small business owners

The guide was developed after Beyond Blue in 2018 commissioned a University of Melbourne research report into the mental wellbeing of owners and employees in small business. It unearthed the sobering statistic that 31 per cent of business owners reported a high level of stress, rising to 36 per cent for sole traders. It also found that those most at risk had either just started in their business (less than a year) or had owned a business for more than 20 years.

Beyond Blue lead clinical adviser, Dr Grant Blashki admits it can be a balancing act in determining if someone has crossed the line into a state of deteriorating mental health.

“We don’t want to ‘medicalise’ normal stress,” Blashki says. “A small business is certainly not for the faint-hearted.”

However, there are red flags: impatience or irritability that quickly turns to anger; consistent tiredness; missing deadlines; increased conflict with staff or customers; negativity and speaking about themselves in a derogatory way; and drug or alcohol abuse. Couple some of these with business challenges such as lack of cash flow, competitor pressures and tax obligations, and the person could be sitting on a psychological powder keg.

How to help clients under pressure

Blashki says while it can feel like an awkward subject to broach, those who deal regularly with small business owners are often in a unique position to note changes that could be a sign of either existing or impending mental health problems. Immediate staff or family members are often the best sounding board, but sometimes it takes an outsider to crystallise what’s going on.

“We’re not asking financial advisers and accountants to suddenly become qualified psychologists,” Blashki says. “I think that’s the fear, that ‘gosh, I am going to open a can of worms, and it is none of my business’.”

The conversations may be as simple as asking how someone is or talking about how busy their life has been. From there, a practitioner might suggest the client read the Beyond Blue guide – a website or formal documentation tends to legitimise the issue – or that perhaps the person visits their family doctor (Medicare subsidises the first six appointments with a psychologist).

Broadly speaking, long-term solutions tend to be twofold: centring around managing business issues but individuals also managing themselves. While the “at work” problem-solving – particularly when it comes to financial matters – will be a natural fit for accountants, there should be equal emphasis on personal behaviours such as staying active, getting a decent night’s sleep and establishing a realistic work-life balance.

View the Beyond Blue guide.