Aneela Mather-Khan CA discusses how she overcame the experience of low mental health whilst working and studying, how the profession’s attitudes to mental health have changed and what firms can do to support the wellbeing of their employees.
What was your experience of the CA training process?
Having studied economics as a degree, accounting and the CA qualification was like learning a foreign language. I found it extremely difficult, especially having to balance studying, working and moving to a new city.
During my CA studies, I experienced a lot of anxiety, particularly as continuing in my job rested on passing the exams. Many CA trainees will relate to those worries but for me it went further and the anxiety manifested itself through insomnia, irritability, and difficulty focusing and concentrating.
I hadn’t experienced mental health problems before, and it was a lot of change all at once.
How did you eventually manage the situation?
Today, most large companies have mental health resources but even then, when you are struggling it can be difficult to identify the support you need, and for many people, it’s often not an easy topic to discuss.
I was lucky to have the support of my then boyfriend, now husband. It was difficult discussing my struggles with my family as they weren’t nearby and didn’t understand the job or culture. I also spoke to my GP and was able to get cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, sessions.
…it’s easy to forget that you need to take a break when you feel under pressure.
Those one-to-one sessions helped me identify that I needed to proactively ensure that in between studying and work I was also getting time to do something I found enjoyable. It sounds so simple but it’s easy to forget that you need to take a break when you feel under pressure. I’m glad that I reached out for help as CBT gave me powerful resources that I still use today to manage my mental health.
I also found ICAS to be very supportive when I reached out and I am glad I persevered with my training. I’ve been qualified for over 8 years now and being a CA has opened so many doors.
Do you think the profession’s attitudes to mental health have changed since then?
I think the workplace attitude to mental health has changed. However, it’s still not perfect. There can still be a culture and expectation in financial services that you have to work long hours, which often isn’t conducive to a work-life balance, especially if you have a family.
That said, most companies are now well aware that better mental health will lead to happier workforces with better retention of staff.
Flexible working helps, especially for people with parenting and caring responsibilities.
What practical steps do you think firms can take to support their employees?
Firstly, it’s important to ensure that jobs are sufficiently resourced so that team members aren’t overloaded. Otherwise, I think more could be done to promote greater flexibility in the industry. Flexible working helps, especially for people with parenting and caring responsibilities.
Further positive actions could be things like not sending emails at antisocial hours unless absolutely required, and having regular check-ins with staff to ensure they are managing to maintain a balance.
My current company has been great. They promoted employee wellness and I was able to use the resources they made available to help me remember those valuable lessons from earlier in my career. They have a toolkit on the staff intranet which provides helpful articles and advice, and we can access a counsellor through our health plan. These kinds of measures and their overall attitude have allowed me to prioritise self-care and create better boundaries between work and home, which has included turning my laptop off when the day ends.
I also think it’s important that people practise self-care for their mental health, prioritising activities like taking regular exercise, cooking healthy food, and spending time with friends and family outside of work.
…it’s such an important topic, especially if the profession wants to continue attracting the best new talent.
Are there any measures that could have helped when you were training?
I feel that a healthy work-life balance should have been better encouraged and facilitated, because it’s such an important topic, especially if the profession wants to continue attracting the best new talent.
Having the exams more spread out rather than doing them all in bulk would have helped me, and I believe this happens now for ICAS trainees, which is great. ICAS also provides help through things like its Student Assistance Programme.
When my feelings of anxiety started, not only was I in a new job, I had also left home and moved to a new city. Having support for graduates who have had to do similar and relocate for work could be hugely beneficial, perhaps in the form of a peer network and offering help to find accommodation, etc.
Do you have advice for anyone who might currently be struggling with stress?
I would encourage anyone who has been in a similar situation to not be embarrassed. Use the resources available to you, whether that’s from the NHS or your company, to manage your mental health. It’s important to know when to put yourself and your wellbeing first.
Mental health is something we should all be encouraged to prioritise. It shouldn’t be seen as a weakness, rather something that everyone experiences dips in from time to time.
If I could go back and see my younger trainee self and offer her some words of advice, I’d tell her to be more assertive about carving time out for study and downtime and to care less about outside opinion.