Mental health in accounting

Nicky Burridge
Ester Zirilli

With World Mental Health Day 2022 held this month, the Big Four firms share the steps they have taken to promote wellbeing among their talents. Nicky Burridge reports.

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Nicky Burridge
Ester Zirilli


Accountants suffer greater levels of stress than professionals working in other sectors, with the high workload, long hours and the lack of margin for error tipping many over the edge. This was the conclusion of a recent study into accountants’ mental wellbeing conducted for the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. It found that 56 percent of professional accountants were suffering from stress and burnout, compared with 41 percent of employees across other sectors.

Mental health in accounting

While no similar study has been conducted in Hong Kong, there is reason to think professional accountants working in the city suffer from comparable mental pressure.

Depression and anxiety are the most common mental health problems people in Hong Kong suffer in a workplace setting, with burnout also widely seen, according to Odile Thiang, Lead Clinical advisor – Anti-Stigma Programme, at Mind HK. “Burnout is the result of sustained and unmanaged chronic workplace stress. Long working hours, unreasonable workloads, unsupportive leadership, a lack of collegiality and autonomy can all contribute to burnout and lead to further mental health distress,” she says.

Thiang adds that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant adverse impact on the mental health of people in Hong Kong due to its associated societal and economic concerns. There is also a significant stigma around mental health in the city, with 41 percent of respondents in a survey conducted by Mind HK stating mental health problems were the result of a lack of self-discipline and willpower. “This is of course not true, as mental ill health is complex and multifactorial, including biological, psychological and social factors. The stigma of mental health is important because it is likely contributing to the fact that three in four people struggling with mental health do not seek help,” Thiang says.

Research by the City Mental Health Alliance Hong Kong (CMHA HK), a not-for-profit alliance of businesses working with mental health experts to support mental wellbeing in the workplace, suggests mental health issues among professionals are getting worse. Its 2022 Thriving at Work Assessment, based on a survey of its members, who include accounting firms, as well as leading global banks and law firms, found that 40 percent of employees had experienced mental health issues in the past 12 months, significantly higher than the 27 percent who reported issues in 2020.

Peter Picton-Phillipps CPA, EY APAC Financial Services Partner, Wellbeing Sponsor Partner at EY Hong Kong, and a Board Director for CMHA HK, says: “Stress and associated burnout, depression, anxiety, loneliness, lack of resilience, and inability to sleep are all symptoms of mental health issues impacting many accountants, particularly those working in the audit industry.”

Edward Au FCPA, Vice President of the Hong Kong Institute of CPAs, and Southern Region Managing Partner at Deloitte China, thinks the pressure professional accountants work under can make them more vulnerable to mental health issues. “Accountants play a frontline role in the financial success of businesses, and very often have to balance costs and benefits, and consider various perspectives when making decisions. With constant pressure to manage multiple tasks that require high accuracy and hard deadlines, it may be that accountants are easily prone to stress and anxiety,” he says.

Promoting mental wellbeing

Accounting firms are increasing the attention they pay to the mental wellbeing of staff, with many introducing programmes to promote good mental health. When introducing such programmes, Thiang thinks the most important factor in determining their success is whether they are supported by leadership. “Mental wellbeing programmes have to come from the top down, with the leaders of the company openly talking about the importance of mental health, as well as enacting policies that are aligned with a healthy work-life balance,” she says. Thiang adds that bringing in experts to talk about mental health, or having short-lived mental health and wellbeing campaigns, tend to fall flat unless there are concrete policies to back them up.

Recommended initiatives include measures that support work-life balance, such as having appropriate leave allocation, offering flexible working opportunities, and ensuring an appropriate amount of sick leave is available, including time off for mental health distress. Setting up employee assistance programmes and making them widely available is also important, according to Thiang.

“Mental wellbeing programmes have to come from the top down, with the leaders of the company openly talking about the importance of mental health.”

Research by CMHA HK found that the most effective initiatives for promoting mental wellbeing in the workplace were providing culturally appropriate in-house and external mental health support, and giving employees access to preventive and early intervention services. The report added that using external campaigns, such as World Mental Health Day and the Green Ribbon Campaign, to raise the profile of mental health issues was also effective.

But the research also found that companies still needed to do more in terms of supporting employees through lifecycle events, as well as communicating their commitment to workplace mental health to them, and collecting and reporting data to develop and promote workplace mental health strategies. Other areas identified as having room for improvement included appointing and developing mental health champions and providing support for line managers.

“Evidence that many employees are unaware of the mental health resources offered by their employer shines a light on the need for improved internal communication on the strategies and initiatives available, and would be well supported with the introduction of mental health champions to signpost their peers to resources and initiate mental health discussions to help break down the prevailing stigma associated with mental health,” the report said.

Big Four initiatives

All of the Big Four firms in Hong Kong have initiatives in place to promote mental wellbeing among their employees.

PwC is conscious that as a professional services firm, there may be situations in which staff in some of its businesses have to work longer hours at specific times of year. As a result, it takes a proactive approach to providing support through creating what it describes as a wellness ecosystem, a holistic framework that covers physical, mental, social, occupational, and financial wellness. As an integral part of this ecosystem, PwC launched its WeFlex policy in 2018, which provides the flexibility for its employees to choose when, where and how they work, provided that it works for clients, the team, and the individual.

Meanwhile, its Wellness Reimagined app, which was launched last year, connects staff with a one-stop shop of services and products to improve and enhance a personalized wellness experience. In addition to a flexible wellness budget for employees to purchase PwC-curated wellness packages, it offers 24/7 life coaching services covering both personal and professional concerns, as well as regular talks on issues such as mental health hosted by external professional bodies, and articles sharing wellbeing tips to help its employees cope with their everyday stress. In view of the importance of building a sense of community with colleagues across locations, PwC recently updated its Wellness Reimagined app to include a Life Club feature to help people stay connected and build meaningful relationships.

“We recognize that every individual is on a separate wellness journey and therefore we must be agile in how we respond to their specific needs, providing flexibility and a personalized experience for our people,” Ewan Clarkson, Chief People Officer, PwC Mainland China and Hong Kong, says. “Even for accountants working on the same project, each of them can be experiencing different events in life, face different challenges in their flexible work arrangements, or respond differently to stress and pressure as an individual.” As a result, he says it is important for team leaders to lean in and be aware of individual challenges and experience, and have frequent check-in with team members.

Clarkson adds that since the firm introduced its enhanced wellness journey, it has seen a 14 percent increase in staff satisfaction around wellbeing and flexibility, while 80 percent of staff downloaded and started using its upgraded Wellness Reimagined app within a month of its launch.

He advises firms setting up wellness programmes to include active listening programmes in leaders’ routines to identify demand for mental health and wellness services. “By regularly organizing knowledge sharing webinars and through monitoring the wellness indexes and sentiments via different channels, the needs and voices of employees can be relayed back to people leaders, who then can take actions to address those individual challenges,” Clarkson says.

For Deloitte, a key pillar of its wellness initiatives involves facilitating open discussions about mental health issues and encouraging staff to make mental health a priority.

It does this through regularly organizing wellbeing-themed activities to raise awareness about the issue within its practice. “We want to create a culture where people don’t feel shy to talk about their own mental stress or issues, and people know how to leverage our internal and external resources when they are in need, including but not limited to a mental health hotline handled by qualified psychologists that Deloitte specifically procured for our talents,” Au says.

The firm also places a high emphasis on maintaining a two-way dialogue to address mental wellness, providing regular opportunities for staff to express their needs through surveys, discussion forums and internal communication channels. It has also launched a Mental Wellbeing Month during which it runs various live and virtual activities to engage talents.

Au points out that businesses all have their own unique work culture and practices, and although there are many popular mental wellbeing programmes available in the market, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to promoting mental wellbeing at work.

EY takes a holistic approach to wellbeing, based on four pillars which cover mental, physical, financial and social wellbeing. While all wellbeing activities get positive take up, post-event surveys have found staff want more events covering mental wellbeing. “We believe it’s the individual’s responsibility to take primary care of their own wellbeing, but managers and leaders have a responsibility to support the people they supervise,” Picton-Phillipps says. “We made a public commitment with respect to mental wellbeing in 2020 on World Mental Health Day, and since then have been raising awareness and reducing the stigma related to the topic, through regular events throughout the year.”

He explains that EY has supplemented its existing traditional support mechanisms with specific training for “mental health first aiders,” as well as making new self-help information available. “Creating a firm culture where people feel they belong, and which supports them in developing their professional skills and bringing their best self to work is a priority for EY. This encapsulates all aspects of wellbeing, and diversity, equity and inclusion,” he says. “We still have a long way to go and continue to look at ways we can enhance the support we provide.”

For firms looking to introduce their own wellness programmes, Picton-Phillipps advises them not to try to reinvent the wheel, but to leverage support that is available from organizations like CMHA HK. He also stresses the importance of having buy-in from leadership at the top of the firm. “Having a programme is one thing, but it needs to be embedded into the firm’s culture to be successful and bring the benefits to the workforce,” he adds.

To promote staff wellbeing, KPMG China has more than 50 staff-led interest groups called myLife, as part of its staff engagement and wellness programme. “Through three key focuses – mind, body and social – myLife aims to help our people strike a better work-life balance and drive social interactions among our people. All these interest groups are funded by the firm to run different activities, ranging from football, hiking and photography, to parenting activities,” a KPMG spokesperson explains.

It also holds awareness-building activities on World Mental Health Day, while mental wellbeing is included as a topic in its Fit to Lead programme.


Win-win outcomes

Introducing effective strategies to promote mental wellbeing in the workplace, has significant benefits for companies, as well as employees.

Picton-Phillipps points out that clients and regulators expect the highest standards from auditors in Hong Kong. “Auditors’ work is demanding and challenging to get right, and people can only perform to their best level if they have good physical and mental wellbeing. All audit firms rely on their people to meet these expectations and it is incumbent on them to support their people in achieving good wellbeing for the sake of their people, clients and business,” he says.

Thiang says that aside from a company’s need to take care of its employees, it is advantageous for an employer’s bottom line to prioritize their mental and physical wellbeing. “Employees who are well are better able to contribute meaningfully in their job. Poor mental health negatively impacts productivity and innovation. Attrition from burnout, anxiety or depression will negatively impact productivity and disrupt continuity.”

In fact, research by CMHA HK estimates that mental health costs employers between HK$5.5 billion and HK$12.4 billion a year in terms of absenteeism, turnover, team productivity loss as well as opportunity cost.

“Auditors’ work is demanding and challenging to get right, and people can only perform to their best level if they have good physical and mental wellbeing.”

Au agrees that investing in corporate wellness and offering mental health resources not only benefits employees but also firms. “As a professional services firm, Deloitte sees talent as our greatest asset as we rely on them to deliver the highest quality of services to our clients with their expertise and professional knowledge,” he says. “Employees who are motivated and possess a positive state of mind work more productively and maintain a better relationship with our clients, and also tend to stay longer with the team and the firm.”

He adds that having a strong focus on wellbeing can also help with recruitment. “Job seekers tend to look for workplaces that support high levels of wellbeing nowadays, especially Gen Z and millennials. They have a higher level of mental health literacy and desire their employers to prioritize wellness and offer flexibility at work to accommodate their own interests and individual needs,” Au says. But he stresses that Deloitte does not think of wellness programmes as being a recruitment tool. “It is more about how to make Deloitte a better workplace so that talents naturally want to become part of our family.”

Clarkson agrees: “Organizations that make wellness and flexibility a priority of their people strategy will not only foster a caring and inclusive culture for a better people experience, but also build a stronger employer brand, attracting and retaining the best talents,” he says. “Organizations that make an effort to listen to their people, understand and address their individual challenges to enable employees to live well and work well will lead to higher work efficiency and better business outcomes.”

According to research by City Mental Health Alliance Hong Kong, based on a survey of its members, who include accounting firms, global banks and law firms, 40 percent of employees had experienced mental health issues in the past 12 months, significantly higher than the 27 percent who reported issues in 2020.

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