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Delivering mental health support to accountants and clients

It’s taken a combined effort, but multiple parties have now committed their expertise and resources to ensure accountants and their clients do not have to deal alone with the mental traumas many had to endure in 2020.

Megan Breen | January 2021

The mental health support offered by accountants in dealing with the economic fallout of 2020, brought on by devastating bushfires and then a global pandemic, has been vital to small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) across Australia. 

Throughout last year, accountants played a frontline role in helping individuals and businesses manage the economic downturn. The federal and state governments have relied heavily on the accounting profession to ensure its support measures reached the thousands of business owners in need of it.

The toll on SMEs, including accountants, has been far-reaching, with a recent study commissioned by the Federal Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources reporting that nearly one in three SME owners had in the past 12 months been diagnosed as experiencing stress, depression or anxiety. 

As a result, business advisers have been identified as uniquely positioned to provide mental health support to SMEs, which has led to professional help now being offered to CPA Australia members to ensure they are equipped to recognise and support their clients, employees and themselves in dealing with mental health issues.

From February 2021, professional accounting bodies including CPA Australia, Institute of Public Accountants (IPA) and Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CA ANZ) will work with the IPA-Deakin SME Research Centre to deliver mental health training to more than 5000 professional accountants over the following 12 months across Australia.

Joint accounting body effort to deliver mental health support

Rowena Buddee, CPA Australia’s executive general manager public practice and professional standards, says it is pleasing to see the three bodies come together to encourage their members to participate in the training.

“Business owners have faced significant mental health challenges this year [2020] and accountants have seen not just the stress in their clients, but also the financial and emotional toll on themselves and their staff,” Buddee says. 

“Mental health is a societal issue and requires a collective effort – so coming together and having a joint approach is really important.”

She says it has long been recognised that accountants are often the first people to see the toll financial pressure places on clients and that the training will have a ripple effect in providing support to accountants, their clients and the wider community.

“It's an important opportunity for early identification management and helps with mental health issues. By training accountants to provide mental health support to their tens of thousands of small and medium business clients, we will have a larger societal impact.”

Identifying mental health stressors

Professor Andrew Noblet, department of management, faculty of business and law at Deakin University, says the university-inspired Counting on U project was funded through a A$2.24 million grant from the Department of Innovation, Science, Energy and Resources.

The grant will enable accountants to provide mental health first aid to their clients and help people become better equipped to identify mental health stressors. 

“It became quickly apparent to us that there was a need coming from the accounting bodies to help their members better deal with clients who are experiencing acute distress, as well as supporting the mental health of accountants, financial planners and other business advisers, Noblet says. 

He notes that as well as providing mental health first aid training to help those showing signs and symptoms of acute psychological distress, the program’s training will focus on building client relationships. 

“By combining mental health first aid with client relationship building training we are signalling right from the outset that understanding the business and personal needs of your clients can help ensure you're providing financial services that better meet their needs”, he maintains.

“At the same time, better understanding their needs can give you a more accurate insight into the emotional state of your clients, and where you do see someone who's struggling, you're in a much better position to encourage help-seeking and ensure they get the guidance they need.” 

Noblet says the training is complimentary for members who work in public practice with more than one SME client. It will be delivered through a combination of virtual training sessions, self-paced e-learning modules, surveys and virtual booster sessions.

“The materials are as relevant to accountants as they are to their clients, and it's also very relevant to their peers and colleagues within the accounting firm.”

To express interest in the Counting on U program, email [email protected]

Further resources are available at https://blogs.deakin.edu.au/counting-on-u/ and www.cpaaustralia.com.au/public-practice/toolkit/wellbeing

Read the special mental health edition of INTHEBLACK magazine.