MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS
Keeping an eye on the mental fitness of your Finance Team
As many of you may know, this is Mental Health Awareness Week In the UK. Now could not be a more appropriate time to discuss this subject and identify ways that you and your organisation can make a difference. This article has focus on the finance team and raises some questions and provides some thoughts for consideration. It does not provide the answers, that is for you to explore and work out yourselves.
Talking about mental fitness
Let us talk about mental fitness not mental health
In a recent on-line event, Jonny Jacobs, Finance Director EMEA for Starbucks, provided some excellent insight into the subject. One of the points raised was that the phrase ‘mental health’ immediately conjures up negative thoughts. Compare this with the phrase ‘physical health’ where the first thought of many is positive. What we need to appreciate is that everyone has mental health, for some it is good, for some it is not so good. The language that we use is important so to talk about ‘mental fitness’ shines a far more positive light on the subject and has less of a stigma.
Mental fitness within the Finance Team
We all know that working within the finance team comes with positives and negatives. One of the drawbacks is the almost implicit expectation that accountants will ‘go the extra mile’. By that we mean that they do what it takes to get things done, often working long hours during critical periods. In fact, if you talk to members of the finance team, they will often tell you they are always busy. When it is not period end it will be the budget cycle or a project of some kind.
The current situation is a case in point. During times of crisis the finance team are in more demand than ever. You only have to look at the business press and on-line forums to understand that cash management and planning are the most critical short-term processes for organisations. The responsibility to deliver this is placed firmly on the finance team. Other initiatives such as cost control are also strongly influenced by finance. What we are seeing is that, whilst employees from many departments are being furloughed, very few finance team members are. This reinforces the fact that the finance team are critical in leading the organisation in a crisis.
So, finance is ‘going the extra mile’ as we speak. However, we are also hearing that employee productivity is down whilst working from home (WFH). Some of this may be temporary, caused by technology limitations that are slowly being solved. Also, part of it may be due to getting used to the whole concept of WFH. What is obvious is that WFH poses several people challenges, including collaboration and management of people, as well as productivity.
Take all of these factors into account and we are in dangerous times. The uncertainty and risk of coronavirus, the isolation of lockdown and additional demands on finance. Now, more than ever, you need to be aware of the mental fitness of yourself and your finance team.
Getting the help you need
What can you do in the short term?
It is all too easy to slip into continuous work mode, not stopping to take breaks or working excessive hours. WFH can be tough and lonely and, with the increased demands being put onto finance, this may result in high levels of stress. It has been proven that a certain level of stress is optimal (see the Yerkes-Dodson law), but the same research also states that prolonged periods of stress can be damaging. The problems will not disappear when WFH ends. What will replace it will be stress and anxiety caused by returning to work or fear of job losses.
There are no specific answers from us as to how to deal with the mental fitness of you and your team as everyone has their own needs. We must recognise that we are not experts in this field and cannot diagnose and treat. This is where the experts earn their money. However, in this Mental Health Awareness Week, the #SpeakYourMind initiative by the charity Mind is one that everyone can easily partake in:
“Reach out to someone who needs a friend with a positive message, or share with them your own tips for coping to make sure they don't have to face this pandemic alone. Sharing our stories help others see that they're not alone in the challenges they're facing.”
What can you do in the longer term?
Hopefully, the HR team or similar in your organisation has a policy or an initiative in place to deal with mental fitness. If you do not, never has there been a better time to raise the subject in your organisation. With such a high level of awareness about the subject in recent months, with Prince Harry and William speaking out in public, our experience is that the C level door is open like never before.
From a finance team perspective, when things settle down, we need to challenge the implicit expectation that we ‘go the extra mile’. For too long it is almost seen as a ‘badge of honour’ to work long hours, burning the midnight oil to meet tight deadlines.
We can all work smarter, be more efficient and effective. We need to automate the low-level tasks that consume our valuable time. We need to flatten out the peaks of demand that we now see that cause high levels of stress and that impact our mental fitness. We need to use the skills we have to be strategic and lead the organisation. We need to invest in technology, invest in the finance team. Most importantly, we need to get back to working sensible hours.
In a recent survey (Source: Generation CFO Research: The impact of COVID-19 on the CFO and the Finance Team) 47% of organisations surveyed had a finance transformation strategy in place. At this point in the crisis over 52% said that the priority for transformation had increased with 23% unchanged. For too long strategies have been in place but, for whatever reason, transformation has failed to materialise. If ever there was a catalyst to transform it is now. We need to find ways to be kinder to ourselves and other members of the finance team.
Support Mental Health Awareness Week
In this awareness week, let us all be aware of our own mental fitness and help those around us with the #SpeakYourMind initiative. In the longer term, make a commitment to transform your finance team and improve their mental fitness.
We can get through this together!
Financial Performance Management Specialist