Protecting your mental health: How mindfulness and holistic health can help  accountants and bookkeepers
Running Your Firm

Protecting your mental health: How mindfulness and holistic health can help  accountants and bookkeepers

Busy season might leave a lot of accountants feeling like there is no time to tend to their stress, but study after study has shown that these jobs can take a real toll. If you’ve had nightmares about reporting revenue data and feel frozen whenever it’s time to go to work, you are not alone. What’s more, there are confidential resources available to help.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and whether it’s May or any other time of the year, professionals in any line of work might find themselves overburdened—and accounting is no exception. In fact, a 2022 survey from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales’ (ICAEW) occupational charity, caba, found that 55% of accountants reported feeling stressed and burned out, compared to 41% of employees in other industries.

The data all seem to add up. In 2023, 61% of respondents to an Association of Chartered Certified Accountants survey reported that work pressures were negatively impacting their mental health. That same year, 28% of tax and accounting firm professionals surveyed by Reuters said they believed their work was negatively affecting their mental wellbeing.

“Although it may seem like our jobs are very cut and dry, there’s a lot more to it, and the profession is changing very rapidly, which also creates a lot of stress for people,” said Jackie Cardello, president and managing partner for GRF CPAs & Advisors. If left unattended, that stress could grow into something more severe.

Feeling the pressure

Working in accounting often means managing several stressors that can weigh heavy. Bruce Pelleu, chief financial officer for the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, cited obstacles, including high work volume, limited staffing, and “a feeling that a lot falls on you while you don’t have flexibility to move deadlines.”

Cardello cautioned that losing out on sleep can inflame these issues. “If you’re feeling the pressure and you’re starting to feel anxious or depressed, and you’re fatigued, a lack of sleep can definitely lead to exacerbating those feelings,” she said.

Accountants must stay up to date on a number of emerging topics and technologies, and there can be a high demand for efficiency—especially during staffing shortages. Time constraints inflame that strain.

“It either happens or it doesn’t,” Pelleu said of the large, deadline-driven workloads accountants can face, “and so you feel pressured.”

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Although it may seem like our jobs are very cut and dry, there’s a lot more to it, and the profession is changing very rapidly, which also creates a lot of stress for people. —Jackie Cardello

Eighty-seven percent of Caba’s survey respondents reported that a heavy workload was taxing their mental health, while 72% blamed long work hours and 63% cited the complexity of their work, which leaves no room for error. The charity also reports that one in seven accountants believe they know at least one person at work who has an addiction.

Signs that you might be overburdened could include consistently working odd hours, regularly missing deadlines or making errors, and avoiding new projects or clients. It can be easy to write mental health challenges off as basic stress, but as Cardello said, some warning signs such as avoidant behaviors might indicate a deeper issue.

“When you think it’s stress to the point where you can’t get out of bed in the morning, for example,” Cardello said. “You get in your car and you can’t get yourself to turn the car on, pull out of your driveway, and go to work.”

It can be tempting to wait things out and hope that the pressure dissolves on its own, but the strain can pile up quickly and become a bigger problem later on.

Understanding the issues

The good news is that in the past few years following the pandemic, the accounting field—along with the United States as a whole—has placed a greater emphasis on understanding mental health. This means that those who need help will find more resources than ever before.

Lindsey Curley, CPA, CGMA, senior manager for the AICPA Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS), has made it her mission to better understand and advocate for mental health since 2018, when she lost her sister-in-law to suicide.

She struggled with depression and anxiety,” Curley said, “and we had no idea.”

During the pandemic, when AICPA members began asking for mental health resources, Curley and the PCPS partnered with Amber Setter from Conscious Public Accountants to develop learning materials that all AICPA members can access.

Any AICPA member can download these PowerPoint learning modules, customize, and use them however they wish. They lay out why mental health is a business imperative, as well as how to recognize that someone might be struggling and then intervene. There are two sections, one for individuals and one for accounting firms.

“A healthy psychological state is the only way to work at your best, and if each person is working at their best, it will only yield positive results for firms and organizations,Curley said. On an organizational level, she added, investing in mental health will increase employee engagement and productivity, while reducing expenses like workers’ comp and insurance premiums.

In other words, as Curley put it, “Mental health does impact the bottom line.”

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A healthy psychological state is the only way to work at your best, and if each person is working at their best, it will only yield positive results for firms and organizations. —Lindsey Curley

Seeking help

For individuals looking for help, Pelleu suggested that accountants first assess what mental health resources their own companies provide. In larger firms, Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are usually confidential and often run independently from the company’s HR department.

Still, some employees might be reluctant to access workplace benefits due to stigma. Caba’s 2022 survey reported that 42% of respondents worried that seeking help at work for a mental health issue could hinder their career advancement.

Fear of being judged for mental health struggles “absolutely affects our profession,” Curley said. “Accountants are subject to the same stigma commonly associated with mental conditions. We feel like we can deal with any struggles ourselves without external assistance, or sadly, aren’t willing to take the time away from work to invest in our mental wellbeing.”

Across the country, Cardello acknowledged, “We tend to wear stress as a badge of honor. It’s like, ‘I’m under stress, and it’s because I’m important.’ That stress can turn very quickly into feeling some hopelessness.”

There is no need to go it alone. If your workplace does not sponsor its own programs, major insurance providers also cover a wide array of services. Some local trade organizations can offer further confidential support.

The Texas Society of CPAs, for instance, runs an Accountants Confidential Assistance Network to support Texas CPAs and CPA candidates who have a problem with alcohol, substance abuse, depression, stress, or other mental health issues. The New York State Education’s Office of the Professions, meanwhile, offers a Professional Assistance Program that allows professionals who have substance use issues and have not harmed patients or clients to voluntarily surrender their licenses while receiving treatment, and avoid professional misconduct charges.

Should your local resources prove lacking, multiple national groups also work to promote mental health. These include the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and Mental Health America. Curley also recommended the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which has a 24-hour help line.

Ultimately, Curley said, the goal is to build your life around peace and purpose. Helpful habits can include taking control of your calendar, knowing your limits, and enforcing your boundaries. In your spare time, engage in activities that feel meaningful and promote connection with yourself and loved ones. Curley also encouraged anyone who is able to access therapy to take advantage.

Meanwhile, employers who want to create a supportive environment for their employees should focus on a few key initiatives.

For starters, Pelleu recommended the early-intervention course Mental Health First Aid, which can teach us all how to support others who might be experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge. The ICAEW recommends that employers should encourage open communication, flexible work arrangements (such as remote options and flexible hours), and sensible workloads and deadlines. And Curley also touted the CDC’s Workplace Health Model.

As an accountant, it’s possible that you might work with a client who seems to be struggling. In that case, Curley recommends approaching them similarly to how you would a colleague.

I think you would reflect on the behavior first,” she said. “Like, ‘I noticed X.’ Just be curious, like, ‘How have you been feeling lately? Is everything okay? I just wanted to check in on you.’”

From there, Curley said, it’s important to create a safe environment for the conversation ahead. “Listen, without judgment, be vulnerable, and then you can get to a point where you would identify an action,” she said. “Within a firm, we would direct someone to the HR department or firm benefits, such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). And then from there, you could provide assistance if you wanted to recommend a support professional or something of that nature.”

As overwhelming as it might feel to realize you need help, all of us can help to create an environment in which no one is ever alone—colleagues, family members, or clients.

“There are a ton of awesome firms out there that are putting a new emphasis on the mental wellbeing of people,” Curley said. “Ultimately, these are the firms who will have the advantage in the recruiting and retention space, and will see the greatest financial results.”

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