Four months ago, no one knew that COVID-19 existed. Now the virus has spread to almost every country in the world, crashing economies, breaking healthcare systems and separating people from their workplaces and friends. Needless to say, we’re all at an anxiety-ridden point of lives – in all parts of the globe – searching for answers about our unforeseeable future and trying to find some peace of mind amid this slow-unfolding chaos.
So, recently when I sat down for a virtual discussion with two expert guests, Karen Reyburn of the Profitable Firm and Rachel Thomas of Room to Think Ltd, we closed in on the well-being of the accounting community.
Our discussion which was meant to throw light on the broader topic of mental health in accountants during COVID-19 – brought up some interesting points about how accountants and professionals in the business process distress, turn to technology for support, and escape and drown themselves into overwork. Here’s a little glimpse into the highlights of our discussion.
On Monitoring Our Anxiety Thermometers
Rachel, Karen and I dived right into the conversation by addressing the elephant in the room – the COVID-19 virus and it’s deep rooted disruption.
For professionals in accounting and in business, the readjustments don’t just stop at the discomfort caused by the shift to virtual working – as one New York Times article reported, fluctuating cashflow, navigating job retention schemes, accessing grants and financial loss – is keeping many professionals up at night. With anxiety trumping over our feelings of confusion, disappointment and distress, I wondered if even after the infections begin ebbing, a secondary pandemic of mental health problems will follow? And whether all this anxiety was of any good?
“There's also the other flip side of this – which is, anxiety can be a good thing,” said Rachel Thomas, Founder, Room to Think Ltd.
“It can help motivate yourself and make you more creative as well. If you just look around the globe, there are some prime examples, all kinds of things going on.
Particularly in the UK, where competitors are now working together and people are caring for one another. There are people talking to each other and checking in on people, which hasn't been happening before.”
What Rachel referred to is called an ‘anxiety thermometer’ by Dan Harris of ABC News in a podcast. It a scale of measure of when anxiety proves to be productive in helping us vs. the tipping point after which it derails us from our goal and damages mental well-being. However, what happens when it tips over?
Source: Center for Clinical Psychology
“One of the key points also is to focus on what you can control,” said Thomas on managing anxiety levels.
“We're in a time of a massive upheaval. There has been so many things are outside of our control. So many of us are caught endlessly searching for answers on the Internet, thinking over and over again about the possible scenarios of what might be. But as long as we're focused on just the questions, we will continue to feel as if we don’t have control. So focusing on what you can control, during this time, plays a massive part.”
On the Importance of Rest
"Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others"
PC Courtesy: Financial Times
On the opposite spectrum of Anxiety is Rest. Karen Reyburn, who leads a global marketing agency for accountants with offices and staff in the UK and USA, thinks sometimes getting rest during the times of a slow-unfolding pandemic like COVID-19 – has a lot to do with “building patterns.”
“So we've always felt too busy. We've always needed rest,” said Karen Reyburn, Founder, The Profitable Firm.
“But now, more than ever, I find that people are a little more open to at least recognizing that the challenge we've got is that if you haven't built in patterns of rest, then it's gonna be quite challenging to set those”
For years, Reyburn has been following a strict routine where she allows herself to take Sundays off and reserve her Mondays as “quiet days.” She claims that her weekly offs have been a big precedent to her productivity and mental well-being all along and after the sudden blow of the crisis, Reyburn is working on rebuilding her patterns of rest.
Now, that many Accountants are stepping up as “financial doctors” to rescue their clients from loss – there are bigger risks of burnout and breakdowns for professionals in the community.
“It is physically impossible for you to go at that level, and that's certainly true for me as it is for anyone. And if you've been working frantically for a week or two weeks or three weeks to help everybody else, the whole “putting on your own oxygen mask before assisting others” is very difficult to do,” said Reyburn.
Learnt more about what accountants really do for business in the last two weeks than I have over five years. You guys are like financial doctors and this is like all your patients getting sick at once.— Jamie Beresford, Practice Protect CEO (@jamie_beresford) March 28, 2020
On Technology Being a Double-Edged Sword
"There are ways to build the online connections that are more than just work and these will see us through this time until we see each other in person again."
One of the biggest contributors to our anxiety and the disruption in our rest patterns during the crisis is social media. While technology and social media is essentially what’s left of our social fabric during these times, new terms like “panic scrolling” and “statistic stalking” are surfacing in the wake of the COVID crisis. These are making us wonder whether a constant inundation of unsettling updates from the crisis are causing us more anxiety than usual.
“So it's not enough to just feel sad today. I have to figure out why I feel sad,” said Reyburn.
“One of the things that concerned me right from the beginning was that rather than just going through this crisis, like people have done in the past, during the world war or something massive of this kind – we are, in addition, trying to evaluate how we are going through this crisis, while we are going through this crisis.”
“I don't want to diminish the good content and there is loads of it. I think especially now it is on us to monitor our own reliance on those things [news on virus] and say if those things are helpful. If they are, great. But if those things are causing me to get into more of a spiral and I'm over analyzing this – then I must stop.”
Governments across the world have taken measures to stop the spread of fake news, hate speech and illegible medical advice during the COVID-19. The reaction from the public has been bittersweet.
Be careful. Any positive news about possible treatments of Coronavirus will be censored from social media for spreading “harmful medical advice.” They only want stories of death, fear, and panic. https://t.co/lRSzJV3LWK— Mark Dice (@MarkDice) April 6, 2020
While on one hand technology is disrupting our mental well-being, on the other hand, social video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Skype are proving to be virtual coffee rooms for building meaningful online interactions.
“There are good things that come from it. And one of those good things is that people are being really honest, like really, really honest. When you say, how are you? They tend to give you a real answer right now,” said Reyburn.
“There are ways to build the online connections that are more than just work and these will see us through this time until we see each other in person again.”
While traditionally online interactions were largely reserved to professional and for corporate purposes – video conferencing is now emerging to be a powerful means of building meaningful connections that are more than just work.
On Loneliness and Social Isolation
"I think the whole social distancing comes with its own risks. As humans, we are social animals who are hardwired for connection with people."
PC Courtesy: Curbed
While online connections begin to soar, the pandemic brings to light another epidemic that adds to the already existing viral epidemic – loneliness. Thanks to technology – social distancing might not have impacted communication to halt altogether – but the tragic nature of the pandemic remains to be one where it has separated us physically from one another in a time when we need each other the most. Despite online connections, can physical isolation ultimately affect our mental health?
“I think the whole social distancing comes with its own risks,” said Thomas. “You know, as humans, we are social animals who are hardwired for connection with people. And this isolation and loneliness can and be worse than the anxiety and depression that may cause people to fail. And even impact our physical health as well.”
Thomas points out that there has never been a better time to stay in touch with family members, friends and all immediate support.
“It’s important to stay connected now more than ever and for us to reach out for support when we need to; or just staying in touch with your friends and family. If you tend to feel a bit withdrawn, depressed with the anxiety, anxious and think about scheduling, rectifying chats and Skype calls to counteract that tendency.”
Studies have shown that most of us are vulnerable to physical and social harm due to limited social contact but simple things like picking up the phone to catch up with friends or video conferencing can help replicate social interactions. This New York Times piece claims that donating and helping people – by simple means like reaching out to neighbours online can also cause us to feel less alienated.
The volume of phone calls has surged more than internet use as people want to hear each other’s voices in the pandemic https://t.co/9OqEdlU0VX— The New York Times (@nytimes) April 10, 2020
On Self-Discovery, Leadership and Communication in a Crisis
"Leadership is not just about a title. It's not about status. It's about behavior."
PC Courtesy: Paul Lachine Illustration
A global crisis like this brings people together and makes them kinder. This is also a time when the world looks up to great leaders for hope.
However, being a leader in a crisis is no easy job. With more and more professionals struggling to find ground in “the new normal” and in the uncertainties of post-COVID world, most organizations are looking at resilient, kind and optimistic leaders who can lead them through difficult times, selflessly.
“There's so many examples of wonderful leadership, good leaders going on,” said Thomas.
“Leadership is not just about a title. It's not about status. It's about behavior. When we talk about leadership – we talk about words like empathy. We talk about being humble. We talk about being supportive, being selfless, putting people first, resilient, great decision making, and great communicators.”
This crisis is testing leaders in areas where they have not fully developed their muscles, and the learning curve will be steep. Here is a research-backed guide to coaching them. https://t.co/XvBbQRDIWm— Harvard Business Review (@HarvardBiz) April 2, 2020
Thomas points out to how in a crisis “information is gold,” which makes communication between leaders and employees a basic amenity during a crisis.
“Good communication can lead to comfort while poor communication leads to lack of trust. So when we talk about acts of kindness, it’s often about people first.”
Thomas thinks it’s also an opportunity for leaders to build on their listening and understanding of staff too.
“This is about an opportunity for people to listen to people. It's quite difficult to listen to people – especially when you’re having a face-to-face interaction”
At last, if there was a silver lining to all this – Thomas points out that a crisis like this can be a good time to reflect and reevaluate our decisions, so that we can come out of this as strong-minded individuals and leaders.
“It's a brilliant opportunity to really look and look at yourself in the mirror. Am I happy being me? Am I happy doing what I'm doing?” said Thomas.
“Usually it takes a crisis or a difficult situation for people to change their behaviour. So suddenly going through divorces or loss or losing jobs or we've got everything happening in one cocktail moment. So there is a choice at the end of all of this – do we come out of this kinder and stronger or just like we were before?”
This article is compiled from a podcast conversation on ‘Mental Health in Accountants during COVID-19.’ Learn more by listening to the full podcast episode:
About Guest Speakers:
Karen Reyburn is the founder of The Profitable Firm, a creative agency for accountants and accounting firms. Karen is a qualified CPA, an entrepreneur and an experienced marketer, who knows the people, the profession and the technicalities of the profession by heart
Reach out to Karen at:
Rachel Thomas is the founder of Room to Think, a leadership training and consultancy company. Rachel helps businesses shape their culture, increase their performance and drive growth. Her work often involves training and educating people to bring out the best in them and the businesses they work with.
Reach out to Rachel at:
Stay tuned for more updates and wisdom talks with experts and follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter with our social media handle @QXASLtd or reach out to our experts for consultations on cashflow, management accounting, business contingency planning and navigating the right grant schemes for your business. Our experts will be happy to help!
Note from the Editor: This blog is a part of a special series that explores "COVID-19 Support for Accountants". Stay tuned for more updates on this or contact our experts for discussing support strategies during COVID-19.
My name is Rishmita and I’m an aspiring journalist and blogger. I love telling stories – of people and brands. When I’m not too busy typing out incessantly on the computer, you’ll find me reading some old American classics or petting some furry stray cats.