Tell me how you’re feeling

Nury Vittachi

Hong Kong’s humorist on why this year’s pandemic is a valuable lesson in the art of making the most out of the worst

The pandemic has been a shock to the world of commerce, and the result is a huge amount of mental stress for business people, doctors say. How to help?

In Australia, they are training accountants in basic psychology techniques so they can help clients with anxiety, I heard from a Hong Kong friend with family there.

That sounds awkward. “Good morning, Mr Chan. While I am auditing your accounts, why don’t you lie down on this sofa and tell me about your relationship with your parents?”

I guess it might work in California, where even patches of tree moss have personal therapists, but surely not in Hong Kong, where people don’t like to admit that they have feelings, even to themselves. You’d have to cajole them – subtly, of course – into revealing personal details. “So, you inherited the business from your dad? Did he beat you? Did you ever feel you wanted to kill him?”

Yet, even if clients did reveal their problems, how could Hong Kong accountants be expected to help solve them?

Wait. I just read the details of the Australia intervention and it says that accountants are advised only to spot signs of stress and call for help – they don’t have to do the difficult conversations themselves. That’s good.

On the morning of writing this, I met two Hong Kong entrepreneurs in the food business. One had an upmarket restaurant and was clearly depressed. Nobody wants to buy caviar-topped smoked salmon in a styrofoam box. But the other had a chain of stalls selling takeaway snacks and was feeling great. My empathy circuits found it hard to weep and celebrate at the same time.

And that’s something the writers of gloom-and-doom articles miss: a surprising number of clients have found ways to thrive during the pandemic.

A startling example can be found in the United States, where the market for legal marijuana grew rapidly during the lockdowns. The logic was: If you’re going to do more chilling out away from your boss and colleagues, you might as well seriously chill out.

The sector grew so much in some parts of the country that special accounting firms emerged to serve the industry, with names such as Dope CFO.

Now I know that accountants who focus on the food or wine industries tend to meet clients over haute cuisine or a glass of pinot noir, so one can assume some accountants whose clients are from the marijuana industry meet over joints. I wonder how the conversations go.

ACCOUNTANT: “So, can you email me your P&L documents?”

CLIENT: “What P&L documents? Ha ha ha ha.”

ACCOUNTANT: “Ha ha ha ha ha.”

[Both fall off chairs and break their bones.]

BOTH: “Ha ha ha ha ha.”

Fortunately, Hong Kong is rather conservative on such matters – although I do know an accountant who specializes in the entertainment industry and actually used to go to all the wild parties until COVID-19 replaced all gatherings with boring Zoom conferences.

In Hong Kong, bookshops report a rise in sales as people spend less time travelling, and the sales and marketing team for Netflix must feel that they have died and gone to heaven. Supermarkets are thriving, since people have been doing more home cooking, and of course alcohol sales are up, since you don’t have to wait until happy hour to have a drink.

And that may be the bigger problem in Hong Kong – not so much mental stress from managing difficult businesses (we’re used to that by now), but the effects on our bodies of eating more and moving less.

Will Australian accountants also be helping their clients with that problem in the future, I wonder? “Good morning, Bruce. Let’s hope your revenue and profits have ballooned as dramatically as your waistline, ha ha ha.”

Nury Vittachi is a bestselling author, columnist, lecturer and TV host. He wrote three storybooks for the Institute, May Moon and the Secrets of the CPAs, May Moon Rescues the World Economy andMay Moon’s Book of Choices

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