Thursday 10 June 2021 6:00 am ICAS Talk

Making a plan for your mental fitness

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Anne Melville-James writes about issues surrounding diversity, inclusion and women in business for national papers and magazines. She also hosts the monthly everywoman podcast series.

A solid strategy for wellbeing and mental health could prove vital for easing your path back to the workplace.

This article first appeared in ICAS’ CA magazine.

As the UK opens up to yet another “new normal”, it is worth taking the time to consider your mental wellbeing. According to a recent poll conducted by AccountingWEB, 47% of accountants rated their mental health as bad or worse during the pandemic. And as hybrid working starts to replace the past year’s remote working, finance professionals will have to readjust once more to a new set of pressures.

“Throughout the pandemic, people have been seeking support to have conversations about their wellbeing,” says Glenys Jackson, Clinical Lead for Mental Health at Bupa, an ICAS partner. “People’s behaviours have changed drastically on an individual basis and in how they interact [during lockdown], and that’s created a difficult time for people because they’re exhibiting behaviours they’re not used to managing due to the effects of being cocooned in their home environment.

“We will all be apprehensive about going back in. For some people, the pandemic has impacted significantly on their mental health, and that wellbeing is going to be challenged again now with anxieties about going back to mixing with people, for example, and whether that’s safe. Others might think they feel fine, but they will be working with people who aren’t and who don’t have that confidence. There will be a lot of anomalies in terms of people’s mental health hygiene and these are going to need to be accommodated by colleagues, line managers and organisations.”

Shoring up the basics – good sleep, healthy nutrition and regular exercise, including getting out into nature, the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2021, which falls this month – can help us start to take ownership of our mental wellbeing and provide a resilient foundation.

But in the run-up to reshaping your work routine, Jackson recommends doing what she calls a “body scan” to identify specific points of vulnerability that may have changed, such as weight, sleep, confidence and routines. “You’ve got to be honest with yourself, and identify what is positive but also what’s concerning for you,” she says. “From that you can draw together a plan of what you can do about it, and understand whether you will need additional help from an employer, colleagues or friends.”

Actions to improve wellbeing

Challenge triggers: Learn what stress feels like to you, says Kirsty Ritchie. Once you can identify it, pause and ask yourself whether you are going to focus all your energy on that stressful feeling or do something more beneficial instead. “We can choose how we respond to stress,” she notes. “Mental fitness is about recognising that, then learning different ways to respond to triggers.”

Reduce pressure: “There’s a lot of perfectionism within accountancy,” notes Tony Shafar CA, “but in most cases that’s not really achievable. Ask yourself, ‘Would I feel stupid not knowing the answer?’ If yes, then do more preparation. If no, you’re in a position where maybe you can let go.”

Employ gratitude: Gratitude helps us to redress the balance of our thoughts if we find ourselves mired in fear or negativity, explains Shafar. It’s a subtle, but powerful mind shift that’s about taking small steps on a regular basis to refocus more on what you’ve got to be grateful for, not the things that have gone wrong.

Ground yourself: Body and mind can exert a powerful influence on each other, especially if you’re anxious. In a panic point, Glenys Jackson recommends grounding: planting your feet firmly on the floor, holding onto something and counting slowly until you have refocused your brain, calmed your physical systems and are back in control of your emotions.

Remember to breathe: Breathing techniques can also help to regulate and calm an overwhelmed mind that may be spinning out of control, Jackson says. Keeping your mouth closed, breathe in deeply through your nose and then exhale slowly, focusing on what’s around you to bring your consciousness back to a place of balance and control.

Finding resilience

Psychotherapist Kirsty Ritchie, co-founder of organisational performance consultancy Mind and Mission, agrees that a clear psychological strategy through this transition will be important, and that changing the way we all look at mental wellbeing can help.

“At Mind and Mission, we’ve found that using the term ‘mental fitness’ rather than mental health puts people in a different mindset. People aren’t automatically thinking about illness; instead they’re thinking about proactivity, as they would with something like physical fitness,” she notes. But, she insists, there is no single definition of mental fitness: “We would say it’s when you feel you are able to take charge of your psychological capacity and to cope with and overcome life’s everyday challenges, in or out of work.”

Self-awareness is key, says Ritchie, who recommends identifying and understanding your stressors, something that in turn will give you the power to respond positively rather than just react. With uncertainty top of the list of things that cause stress, getting comfortable with the “certainty of uncertainty” is likely to be a key skill in managing our working lives for some time to come.

“We have to train ourselves to focus on the things that we can control,” says Ritchie. “We can’t control other people, the world or a pandemic – all we can control is ourselves and how we act. Anxiety is rooted in focusing on the future, worrying about things that haven’t happened, but might. I’m an advocate of mindfulness and meditation – bringing your whole self into what’s happening right now, because that is where we need to be.”

But what if there is too much “right now” in our everyday? For many, the past year has meant furlough or else crisis management, often overworking at home or at weekends to make up time. Experienced FD and Executive Coach, Tony Shafar CA, notes that taking the opportunity to step back and assess now may also provide some much-needed perspective.

He sees the “hamster wheel” effect in many of his clients, a heads-down drive to meet successive deadlines without a pause for strategic reflection. But if we don’t take the time to ask what we really want from our career, we can feel a lack of agency in our lives – something that is vital for good mental health, but easily lost this past year.

Self-talk is also crucial in resilience, for Shafar: “Often, it comes down to the stories people tell themselves about what might not go well and catastrophising around that, which stops them taking action. There is a fear of failure or they are too attached to an outcome and that will stop them moving forward and embracing the challenges they need to.”

Ultimately, supporting our mental health will be a personal, professional and structural issue in the months to come. As such, having honest conversations with employers and line managers about how you are feeling, recognising that you are not alone in experiencing psychological bumps in the road and reaching out if things get too much are all crucial.

“Bupa’s Employee Assistance Programme, 24-7 helpline and the Babylon virtual GP service are great places to go for advice,” says Jackson. “If you can’t manage symptoms by yourself though, you need to accelerate that and engage with external services such as your GP. As individuals we will all be unique in terms of how we cope with this [transition]. But, collectively, it’s about supporting each other – and making sure that those support spokes are there for people.”