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How Counting on U is transforming accounting

The origin of the Counting on U Project stems from the CEO of the IPA, Andrew Conway – who said “The biggest issue facing public practice accountants today is the mental health of their SME owner clients. The second biggest issue is their own mental health”.

How Counting on U is transforming accounting
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  • Maja Garaca Djurdjevic
  • October 08, 2021
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Counting on U is designed to give accountants, financial planners and other business finance professionals the competencies (knowledge, skills, confidence) to ask the tough questions, to better understand the specific sources of the distress, especially financial distress, to encourage help-seeking where they see the signs of anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions, and to generate the insights required to provide accurate and timely business-related advice, especially financial guidance.

The team at Public Accountant sat down (virtually) with Professor George Tanewski, the director and research leader of the IPA-Deakin SME Research Centre, to learn more.

For the IPA, mental health has always been top of mind, tell us how this partnership came to be and how Counting on U was born?

I noticed stress amongst SME owners quite a long time ago. It was actually Andrew Conway, who really spoke to me about mental health, but spoke of it in terms of mental health amongst the IPA members. And so, this was in 2017. In one of the meetings that I had with Andrew, who you would know as the CEO of the IPA, he asked me if I am aware of the fact that a lot of IPA members are feeling quite stressed out? And that the stress is also coming from the fact that a lot of the members who are dealing with SME owners are feeling financially stressed. And so, what he was saying to me was, or indicating to me was, that it would be good if the IPA-Deakin SME Research Centre would look into doing a study on mental health.

That basically was the seed for our mental health research project.

I then went on and created a relationship with Andrew Conway, who is an expert in organisational behaviour and stress. And that's how we actually started to think through and develop how our mental health training would actually work.

What does Counting on U offer accountants, financial planners and other business finance professionals?

Counting on U fundamentally targets the accountant and the accounting profession. So, accountants that are a member of one of the three large professional bodies, like the IPA or the CPA or CAANZ. We target these members who have regular dealings with SME owners. We are training these accounting members and making them aware of mental health first aid issues - meaning how would a person need to deal with a situation if there was a mental crisis, or if the owner was showing symptoms of some mental health distress or financial distress.

That's one of the components of our training programme, but what you also have to understand is that it's actually premised on the fact that the accountant is regarded by the clients, whether they are SME owners or not, as high trust providers.

Meaning that there is trust in the sense that the business adviser who is providing help and assistance, as well as advice to their client will not share or divulge any private information with anybody else.

So, it's akin to a doctor-patient relationship.

That's how the accounting profession is regarded by its clients. And so, given the fact that it's premised on high trust, another component of our training is called the relationship building training.
We are trying to enhance a long-term relationship with the client by building up trust. Through our mental health training, we are first and foremost in ensuring that there is trust in the relationship. And if there is trust and that trust is very high, then the client will be able to share some of their burdens with the business adviser, so that the business adviser can then advise them accordingly as to what they would need to do.

Mental health is a big issue facing public practice accountants today, what has your experience been and what insights can you share from the Counting on U project?

What we can share is that it's come at a very timely stage. When we got the grant for the project at the end of 2019, we had no idea then that there would be a pandemic called COVID. Once we started to roll out our training, all the accounting bodies, so IPA, CPA and CAANZ were all telling us, "Look, try to bring out this training as quickly as you can, because of the fact that there are just so many members who are very, very stressed at the moment".

And indeed, even though the training has been targeted at helping SME clients via the business adviser, we are also very cognisant of the fact that the actual business adviser themselves are a small business owner. And therefore, this training also is targeted at helping members cope with their own stress.

I think the accounting profession recognises how important our training is and to the point that they're going to embed our training into the CPD programme. And we have come across a number of members who have been able to help our clients from doing some form of self-harm.

How important is it to recognise the mental health side effects of this pandemic? We hear about the physical impacts of the virus each day, but mental health appears to have taken a bit of a backseat.

I think it's vital because if we don't recognise that clients, or people, or our society, currently is going through such enormous stress, then we must be really blind to it. This training is very, very timely and it certainly is helping out not only SME owners, but the business advisers themselves in the sense that they are recognising when to time out, when to give themselves a break. Because if they push on there's always a potential of longer lasting damage to themselves, to their health, and to their family's wellbeing as well.

This programme is trying to address a severe mental health problem in a very timely fashion. And it's highlighting to a lot of people, how important mental health is to our wellbeing.

My understanding is that 1,000 participants began training from February 2021, half are receiving relationship-building training and mental health first aid, while the other half are receiving mental health first aid training alone, tell us how Phase 1 is progressing? Phase two includes the remaining 3,500 participants and is meant to commence between June 2021 and June 2022, is that yet underway?

There are going to be around seven waves. We are currently training wave three. And we've trained up to 1,200 accounting members in terms of the mental health training. The training is going to last until the end of June next year. And by that stage, we would hope to have trained around three and a half thousand people.

How we recruit people is through working very closely with all the accounting bodies and we put a request through to a member within the accounting bodies who looks after the membership list. They send out emails or do a direct email marketing campaign to try and recruit members into their training programme. And currently members can claim 15 CPD points for themselves by doing this type of training. But what it's going to do is, once our training's over, it will become a formalised type of training within the CPD programme of all the accounting bodies.

Well, that's pretty impressive. The scale of the project itself, and like you said, the timing is just perfect. What more do you think can be done to help SMEs across Australia given that this pandemic is ongoing? Do you think that more needs to be done in helping them with their mental health in particular?

Look, governments will say that they are currently doing a lot and yes, whilst they are doing quite a bit towards helping fund mental health research projects like ours, I think what will also really help is for all the governments to have a co-ordinated marketing campaign as to how people can alleviate themselves of mental health problems. I don't think enough has been done in that stage. Also, I think the messages that we get from federal government and from the state governments are actually very mixed. And so, there's not always clarity around messaging. I think governments need to work out a better strategy to get more clarity and have clearer messages, not just around what is happening in terms of the pandemic, but in terms of the mental health and the mental health help that they can actually offer.

You’re the director of the IPA-Deakin Research Centre, what other great work are you guys doing that you would like to share with the IPA member base?

Well, apart from the mental health research project, we launched a Small Business White Paper that focused on R&D and the expenditures that small businesses make in terms of R&D. And the reason that we did that was to look at the tax issues surrounding R&D and trying to see whether we could help create better policy towards R&D and innovation. During the pandemic, there was a lot of talk of the fact that we can't rely on our trading partners to really help us out. And then there was a supply chain problem. What we wanted to highlight through our white paper was the fact that we, as a society and the Australian government, needed to focus on boosting the innovation of small business - which actually small business really did during last year's lockdown. There were so many innovative ways that small businesses started to operate. It was unbelievable.

And so, what we were trying to do is to highlight how important innovation and R&D is for us as a society, but it can only come through stimulating small business growth and to provide better help and assistance towards the small business sector.


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