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Starting a business is as much a personal choice as it is a financial one, and an accountant who partners with a small business owner is taking on far more than a set of books. It’s time that the social impact of accountants was acknowledged, embraced, and progressed on a national scale.

  • jlian
  • September 15, 2017
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By day, Mick Conway runs a highly successful landscaping business that designs award-winning projects for renowned international garden shows. By night, the realities of running a small business and supporting his sick wife set in.

For the past decade, Mick has juggled his business, two young children and a wife who is battling breast cancer. The pressures he faces on a daily basis has taken a toll on his mental health and personal wellbeing.

The single person who plays a big part in alleviating Mick’s stress isn’t a family member or a friend. It’s his accountant.

“Don’t worry Mick, I’ll take care of it,” his accountant reassures him. And with these simple eight words, Mick feels less burdened. He can hand over most compliance and financial issues that arise to his accountant and know they will be taken care of.

Anyone running a small business knows clocking off is not an option. They can relate to the relief of having help with the books. This help not only alleviates business stress, it has a positive impact on the wellbeing of business owners too.

A recent report by Suncorp, SME vs Me, revealed that many business owners are overlooking their mental health and wellbeing to achieve professional success. The study found that almost two-thirds of business owners surveyed experienced a personal impact – including financial stress, loss of motivation and relationship strain – as a result of being swamped at work.

Two-thirds of business owners, who operated their businesses for just under three years, were dissatisfied with their work/life balance, while only a quarter were satisfied that the experience of running their own business lived up to their expectations.

Inextricable links

The World Health Organisation (WHO) considers managing the pressures of work-life as central to mental and emotional wellbeing. WHO defines mental health as “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”.

According to beyondblue, while mental health is not fixed or static, stress and heavy workloads are common factors that contribute to anxiety and depression.

Heads Up, beyondblue’s mentally healthy workplace initiative, says that one in five people in the workforce are likely to be experiencing a mental health condition at any given time, costing Australian employers $10.9 billion annually.

Beyondblue’s head of workplace research and development, Nick Arvanitis, says small business owners are at a greater risk of developing a mental health condition because of their greater responsibilities and workload.

Satisfaction with work/life balance has a huge impact in the mental health and wellbeing of a business owner, with less than half of owners surveyed in the Suncorp report saying they were satisfied.

Those who said they had suffered a personal impact as a result of work cited inadequate sleep, personal financial stress, feelings of isolation or loneliness, illness and personal relationship stress as some of the effects of being overwhelmed at work.

“We know that work/life balance is a significant issue because it can interfere with activities that we know are good for people’s physical health and mental health, like eating a balanced diet, being able to exercise and having those social connections,” Mr Arvanitis says.

Enter the accountant

Mr Arvanitis says small business owners need to realise that “no man is an island” and lean on the expertise of professionals, such as accountants, when they are dealing with the financial side of their business.

“Clearly, as a small business owner with all the demands that come with running a small business, you essentially won’t be able to do everything by yourself so if there’s a need for financial advice from an accountant or there’s a need for mentoring, [you should approach someone],” he says.

“As a small business owner, you need to be thinking [of] what sort of support and advice and expertise you need in order to run a successful small business and to look after your own mental health.”

Suncorp chief executive of customer platforms Gary Dransfield acknowledged that accountants are key in providing business solutions to owners, helping to mitigate common stress triggers that could potentially lead to mental health issues.

“Time is so valuable to small business owners, yet it’s the one thing they rarely have enough of. There are many solutions available – digital software programs, business dashboards, business advisers, accountants – which can remove operational complexities and alleviate some time pressures,” Mr Dransfield says.

The Institute of Public Accountants’ chief executive Andrew Conway has been a strong advocate of mental health in the accounting space.

“Do accountants stop and think when clients walk through the doors of our practice or when they give us a call that it’s possibly the most important conversation they’re having that day or in that week?” Mr Conway asks.

“They could be coming with a whole raft of concerns and anxiety that, in that one interaction with us as an accountant, we have the power to reduce the stress and anxiety which has a direct impact on their mental health and wellbeing.”

Mr Conway cited the example of a barramundi farmer in the small town of Humpty Doo in the Northern Territory who used to lie awake at night worrying about compliance, funding and employee obligations as he struggled to keep his business afloat.

The barramundi farmer subsequently engaged an accountant which had a positive impact on his mental state, leaving him better positioned to focus on the things that really matter – his employees and his business.

“I first floated this about 18 months ago at our divisional congress and I asked our members how many of them had a client walk in the door, saying, ‘That’s it. I just want to throw the keys on the heap and I’m not interested anymore. I want to give the game away’,” Mr Conway says.

“Every single member put their hand up.”

Diving deeper

In order to better understand this client-accountant relationship and its effects on mental health, the IPA commissioned the Small Business White Paper version 2.0, due to be released early in 2018.

“We expect the findings to validate the fact that small businesses value the relationship with their accountant, which ultimately leads to lowering their levels of anxiety and stress about their business, and that may well help arrest that spiral into a depression that might become a clinical depression and the natural ultimate tragic consequence that sometimes arises out of that,” Mr Conway said.

“It’s about providing a fresh dimension. [Accountants] sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture, which is the social dimension of the work we do.”

Despite the work of organisations such as beyondblue, there is still a degree of social stigma associated with mental health.

“[Stigma] is a very significant barrier to people disclosing and talking about mental health conditions, and seeking the treatment and support that they might need,” Mr Arvanitis said.

“On the flip side, the most effective way of reducing stigma is to have people share their personal experiences of having a mental health condition because those sharing of stories can be really powerful in terms of encouraging conversations about mental health conditions.”

Mr Conway is hopeful the white paper will provide the impetus for accountants to stand up as an industry to combat these issues.

“I think for us, it’s about saying let’s talk about these issues, let’s be part of this broader conversation about mental health and wellbeing,” he said.

“Let’s not look at it from a taboo point of view, let’s not shy away from the issues that Australians face and let’s address them and provide some practical support.”

Mr Conway says the IPA’s yet-to-be-released white paper will help the organisation to better advise its members on how to handle sensitive conversations about mental health with their clients.

“It’s a sort of conversation that is so delicate and sensitive that it has to be handled with appropriate skill and diligence,” he says.

“This initial research and field evidence will just scratch the surface, but I’m hopeful the initial findings will then lead to a larger scale research piece through our research centre so that we equip our members with the skill they need to provide the services to clients to ensure they are not only enjoying prosperity but also personal and mental prosperity.”

A unique opportunity

While accountants are second-to-none on the tax and compliance front, helping small business owners create a sustainable plan and enjoy life outside work is not a service offering that has reached its full potential in the Australian market.

Opening Gates director Judy Reynolds – who ran her own accounting practice for more than 25 years – says there is a big opportunity here for accountants to expand their value with SME clients.

“Having been in the accounting business for many years, we only ever talk to our clients about strategic decisions around business and the point of reference in those conversations will always be ‘how will this progress the business, how will this move the business forward, how will this make the business more profitable?’,” Ms Reynolds says.

“Unfortunately, there is [often limited] consideration for the business owner’s life in that conversation.

“I advocate that accountants need to have a conversation about what the business owners want from their lives so that they can have a meaningful discussion around strategic business decisions because without that, life is just left by the wayside and it does not serve people to remain sustainable in business.”

Ms Reynolds says the biggest challenge lies in helping small business owners realise that their life is not defined by their business, which is merely a tool to enable their life plan and wealth goals.

She likens business owners to elite athletes who often define their lives by their sport, eventually feeling lost when they have to retire.

“Once we were able to reposition the business as part of life, not life itself, it changed people significantly, because it helped people remain in roles in business on a sustainable basis,” Ms Reynolds says.

“Once we did that, we could design a life plan that was amazing and that they were excited about and then we could position the business in a place which enabled that life to turn up.

“I want accountants to shift the conversations from this historical transactional reactive discussion that sits in the past to a more futuristic relationship-building proactive conversation so that we can actually be in a position to assist in the decision-making process.”

A new wave

Mr Conway believes the accounting profession, with its capacity to provide social value through its work, can attract the next wave of talent.

In a World Economic Forum study, 5,000 Millennials in 18 countries said that the number one priority of businesses should be “to improve society”.

“Here’s an opportunity for the profession to point to the work that they do and say, ‘You can’t get more social value than supporting a person in their hour of need from an anxiety or stress perspective when to them, the world that they attempted to build for themselves and their family is at risk’,” Mr Conway says.

“When an accountant says, ‘Don’t worry. I’ve got it under control for you, we’ll sort this out’, it has a profound impact.”

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