Tuesday 4 May 2021 9:00 am ICAS Talk

Flexing our mental muscles and putting wellbeing first

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J Bruce Cartwright CA is Chief Executive of ICAS. Bruce was appointed Chief Executive in March 2018 having initially joined ICAS in May 2017 as Executive Director, Policy Leadership.

ICAS is making a long-term commitment to mental health and the role of business in taking responsibility for individual wellbeing, says CEO Bruce Cartwright CA.

It’s time to not just talk about mental health and wellbeing but to embrace the topic as a conversation that’s central to the way we live and work. Covid-19 and lockdown have accelerated existing trends of mental ill health in business. Pre-pandemic research from ICAS partner Bupa found that 25% of accounting and finance employees rated their overall wellbeing as poor, a figure that had risen to 47% in a mid-pandemic poll conducted by AccountingWEB. Clearly, this is not just some niche nice-to-have for organisations.

That’s why, at ICAS, we are launching our wellbeing strategy this month. We’re making a long-term commitment to educate, support and lead on mental health. We want to assist our members experiencing difficulties, today and tomorrow, in accessing the services that will improve their wellbeing. It’s also to kickstart a wider discussion around the subject in the workplace. After all, at the heart of every business is a responsibility to look after employees and ensure they can perform to their best.

It has become a very modern cliche to talk about “turbulent times” when referring to the pandemic, but the past year has had two major impacts when it comes to personal wellbeing. The first, put simply, is that it has been an incredibly challenging experience for each and every one of us. The combination of health and economic crises has placed a strain on all areas of society, including our families, friends and colleagues. Even the most resilient among us will have had some very difficult days since March 2020.

The second impact has been the merging of the personal and professional day. The increased physical presence of work in our homes has substantially changed how we interact with others and those parts of our lives we choose to share. Before the pandemic, individuals could control the extent to which they compartmentalised their two worlds – for some this is important, others find it natural and a positive experience to combine. But beyond personal preference, dialling in from home does create strain for some. While loss of travel time is welcome for many, there is still a need to find wind-down time, to not extend the day simply because there is no travel. The key for the future is to use the flexibility that forward-looking employers will offer to make it work best for each of us as individuals. Empowerment and trust will be key.

Now, when you consider these two things in combination, that 47% mentioned above jumps from a statistic to reality. As is only natural, individuals have struggled with an event unprecedented in living memory, enough for almost one in two in our community of financial professionals to have reported challenges to their mental wellbeing. If that doesn’t feel familiar to you, then it likely will for a friend or colleague. And our employers, to whom we devote much of our time, have an obligation to support that goes beyond the legal duty of care.

At the beginning of my career – and even more so back in school – mental health wasn’t even a discussion to be had. People ignored the topic altogether. It meant occasionally colleagues would be “off” for an indeterminate amount of time – and sometimes wouldn’t return. That was just the way things were. The stigma surrounding mental ill health meant situations would reach breaking point before anything happened, to the detriment of employer and employee alike.

Business and beyond

The ethical argument to help is persuasive enough, but the way things were didn’t make good business sense either. Think of the costs incurred. From unscheduled absences to low productivity and – in the most serious cases – losing staff, it’s significant. Even before the pandemic, Deloitte estimated the annual cost of mental ill health to UK employers as £45bn. That shouldn’t be “business as usual” and, as financial professionals, it’s a number we can’t ignore.

When it comes to breaking down this stigma and addressing its costs for both individuals and business, it is crucial to be honest – particularly for leaders, who set the tone and forge the team culture. It’s something I take incredibly seriously as ICAS CEO – as my words and actions influence the experience of employees, members and students alike.

For me, the first week back in January was an incredibly draining one. Returning to work after an exhausting year and a much-needed break, we were confronted with Groundhog Day – the exact same lockdown we’d hoped to leave behind in 2020. Even via video calls, I could see many employees were also finding it difficult. It’s why we arranged a one-day closure in late March: a day for everyone to focus on activities outside work, uninterrupted by the incessant pinging of electronic notifications. It may only have been one day, but it was more than a token gesture – it was an investment in staff wellbeing, a long weekend with emails off, and it was a welcome fillip, something to look forward to at a tough time.

As we seek to boost awareness and activities around wellbeing in business, the crucial thing for each of us to remember is that we’ve all got mental health. We all fall somewhere on a spectrum. When that is challenged, for some, it’s a difficult event that creates a temporary change; for others, it’s more prevalent – a part of their daily life that requires ongoing support.

Whatever your circumstances, we want ICAS to be a community that can be relied upon. And by signalling our intentions with the launch of our mental health strategy this month, we hope the message is communicated far and wide.

To keep up to date with the campaign, and to access wellbeing resources and assistance, visit ICAS.com