Features | From Pivot Magazine

It’s time for CPAs to have a mental health check up

Many accountants have suffered in silence with mental health issues and new support is now available

A Facebook IconFacebook A Twitter IconTwitter A Linkedin IconLinkedin An Email IconEmail

A man looks at a laptop in his office at nightResearch found that accountants were significantly less likely to report suffering from mental health problems (Getty Images/JGI/Tom Grill)

Not surprisingly, like so many other professionals, accountants have suffered a variety of mental health issues, mostly—but not totally—triggered by the pandemic these last few years. According to recent research carried out by a consortium of university professors across Canada, of the 312 accounting professionals that responded to their survey, 52 per cent reported having suffered a mental health issue at some point in their lives. Among those, anxiety was the issue most frequently mentioned, followed by mental stress or distress, then burnout. Of those having reported a mental health issue, 58 per cent indicated wanting to make changes to their work and 48 per cent considered taking a leave of absence.

But the research also found that accountants were significantly less likely to report suffering from mental health problems in comparison to workers from six other professions. They were also less likely to take a leave of absence.

Merridee L. Bujaki, FCPA, PhD, and the study’s co-lead for the accounting profession at Healthy Professional Work Partnership, cautioned that the research is still “a work in progress.” But she’s “encouraged to see that the profession is beginning to take mental health concerns among professional accountants more seriously.”

Among its other findings, the research also revealed that women in accounting were significantly more likely to report having suffered from ill mental health (59 per cent) than men (45 per cent).

“We are continuing to explore this difference,” says Bujaki. “But we believe it is largely related to differing social expectations that result in women continuing to take a larger role in care work responsibilities—whether for children or elders.”

Bujaki heard from a number of interviewees that they left unsupportive workplaces and found meaningful work in places that actively cultivated cultures supportive of wellbeing and resilience. This may be one reason that comparatively few professional accountants take leaves of absence. “They may be leaving their positions to find employers or opportunities, which they consider more supportive or healthier.”

In 2020, a group of Australian researchers found that supportive supervisors and the provision of effective mentoring programs can make a significant difference in reducing burnout and increasing commitment to their employers among professional accountants.

Many accountants in supervisory roles find themselves needing to address mental health matters, says Bujaki. She advised that accountants supervising staff with mental health concerns should receive formal training in this area. Appropriate resources and referrals for mental health services should also be made available. Conversations about mental health within the profession should also be normalized. This is particularly important, she said, “as individuals experiencing mental health issues may lack the ability to seek out needed resources and supports on their own.”

Bujaki adds that employers should ensure that accountants have adequate time off work to recuperate from the demands of busy work periods. This allows individuals to restore depleted energy reserves and it promotes wellbeing, which in turn should enhance employee retention. But this “may require a re-thinking of factors, such as the organization of accounting and assurance work, the number of clients or files an individual accountant can be expected to address, and the prioritization of client demands over employee wellbeing that sometimes occurs.”

Some of the large Canadian firms are already well on their way to providing more support for their employees.

“Our goal is to ensure that all team members are constantly populating their mental health toolbox and ensuring that their tools are not outdated,” says Denis Trottier, KPMG Canada’s chief mental health officer. “Hosting mental health onboarding sessions for all new hires and sessions on how to deal with stress while studying for the CFE are two recent initiatives that have been very well received by employees.”

KPMG has also created Mental Health Ally groups in many offices across the country. These groups discuss various mental health topics and work to increase people’s knowledge of mental health issues.

“Being a professional accountant has tons of rewards, since you are always on a learning journey and on the cutting edge of new developments,” says Trottier. “That being said, client demands, deadlines and continuous training courses can create a challenge to ensure work-life integration is achieved. As a professional accountant, getting to the root cause of what is having an impact on your mental health is key. Nobody can take care of your mental health except for yourself.

“Our firm doctor always tells me that professionals care for their mental health by leaving and then they end up in another environment where they have a relapse. The notion that ‘work is doing this to me’ has to be parked at the door and replaced with ‘what do I need to do to optimize my mental health within this profession and have an amazing career?’”


Read more about Dennis Trottier’s mental health journey. Plus, check out these approaches to avoid employee burnout as well as leader burnout.