Why Prioritizing Mental Health Is a MUST for Accountants

Gusto Editors

Why is mental health important in the accounting industry? 

Gusto’s mission is always to create work that empowers a better life.  In this article, we’re breaking out of the paradigm that separates career and personal fulfillment. Together with CPA Academy, Gusto partnered on a webinar by coaches Amber Setter and Jamie Greene: “Mental Health Initiatives: A Business Imperative.” The duo discussed why mental health is critical to knowledge workers, sharing key components to understanding mental health.

Amber Setter is a consciousness coach who helps individuals and groups cultivate awareness to expand what is possible in their professional and personal lives. A natural intuitive, she brings insight and compassion to all of her offerings. She is a certified, non-practicing CPA who worked as an accounting recruiter before pursuing her coaching business. 

Jamie Greene is a coach with 30 years of experience as a psychotherapist. He has a straightforward, no-nonsense approach to coaching and holds workshops on everything from relationships to dealing with difficult personalities to understanding human behavior. His years of experience as a therapist equipped him with both the education and experience to understand and treat mental health challenges.

Note: Gusto is not a mental health expert or provider. We urge you to seek advice and insights from mental health professionals should you have questions or concerns about any of this content. Insights for this article are drawn from Amber Setter and Jamie Greene.

Where does the body play into understanding mental health?

Mental health, which is closely related to emotional well-being, is not typically discussed openly. Work culture often emphasizes being positive and happy, which is wonderful for morale and a great way to engage at the office. However, when combined with low literacy in the language of emotions, it can lead to a lack of awareness. 

woman holding her head in front of messy desk

An understanding of how to define mental health and, more importantly, how to measure it is essential. No industry or profession is spared from variances in mental and emotional well-being. The intrinsic benefit of tending to mental health is clear—an improved quality of life. But well-being also has external impacts on productivity, connectivity, and effectiveness on the job. 

Since there’s little training around mental health in the workplace, there are many misconceptions about it. One of the most important is the connection between the body and mental health. 

As knowledge workers, you’re used to thinking, rationalizing, and analyzing. Additionally, traditional psychotherapeutic approaches to treatment are often based on thought, in learning to change thoughts, in using the mind to analyze symptoms, and in applying thinking-based techniques to gain control over behaviors or difficult emotions. However, most practitioners today agree that the body is a central component of our well-being. 

“People think [mental health is] all psychological, [that] it’s all about thinking, … but a lot of people manifest anxiety-related issues in their bodies somatically. People are probably familiar with the term ‘psychosomatic’—… ‘soma’ means the body. … In terms of human development, we develop physiologically and physically before we develop emotionally and before we develop our abstract thought.”

Jamie Greene

As highly skilled, intelligent professionals with well-developed minds, it can sometimes be a challenge to connect to these concepts. Yet, they are so simple and so true. According to Jamie and Amber, we’re bodies first and thinkers second. Some psychologists believe this explains why talk-based therapies can sometimes fall short or why a person may have brilliant insights, but be unable to change behavioral patterns. 

Luckily, once you’ve understood this concept, you will have a more holistic view of how you engage professionally. Amber shared what she learned while earning a Masters degree in Leadership:

“I heard this concept of learning yourself as an instrument. [We asked questions such as,] ‘Why do you speak up? Why do you know you need to speak up?’ [Because] there’s something going on in my body. There’s butterflies, or there’s a feeling, and I don’t know that, in a traditional business school, we teach people to pay attention to what goes on in [their] bodies.”

Amber Setter

Understanding how emotions arise in the body is a great way to cultivate self-awareness. It may also lead to taking more appropriate actions to resolve challenges.

“Some people may notice themselves manifesting their feelings physically as opposed to emotionally. So they may develop a rash, which some would say is psychosomatic. [That’s not to say] that they’re imagining it. It [means] the cause is not actually poison ivy. … It’s a manifestation of stress and anxiety that comes out in the skin. Somebody might get headaches, somebody might get stomach issues … [that are not] caused by something physical. … We manifest our anxiety, our sadness, our anger in the body.”

Jamie Greene

Now that you know this, how might you listen to your body to better gauge your well-being? If you’re getting repeated, unexplained headaches, consider that they could be stress-related. What other physical symptoms show up when you are overly busy? These are all great things to consider. 

therapist writing down notes with patient

Barriers to accessing an affordable mental health coach or therapist

Unfortunately, mental health is not prioritized the way that most mental health professionals believe it should be. It’s well-known that insurance companies do not provide great coverage for mental health services, and many practitioners don’t accept insurance for a good reason: Counselors who accept insurance are controlled in many ways by the insurance companies, who can determine how much they charge. To do well, or even just make a living wage, practitioners often opt out of this system.

For more mental health services to be affordable and mainstream, the insurance industry would need to change. Until then, it’s important to be aware of what coverage is available if you’re committed to getting coverage. Jamie shared: 

“There’s two schools of thought: There’s the HMO, in network, or Kaiser-type style where you can have coverage but you’re going to have to go through whoever is in your network, and that’s just luck of the draw, … [or] there’s what’s called PPO, preferred provider. … which means you can go see whoever you want to see. You might have a personal therapist who you really like, someone who was referred to you, … [and] you’ll have coverage for a lesser percentage.”

– Jamie Greene

Will the insurance industry change? It’s impossible to predict. In the meantime, it’s important to learn more about mental health, and that starts with how critical it can be.

Why we’re facing a mental health crisis

There are many reasons why people might struggle with mental health, and there is no concise reason for why people face these challenges. Many professionals believe it is a complex combination of factors such as biology, neurochemistry, family environment, and external stressors. Still others acknowledge that internal and external factors, such as genetics and environment, interact with and affect one another in ways we’re only beginning to understand.

Research by the American Psychological Association indicates that widespread issues such as economic uncertainty, political upheaval, and social unrest can greatly impact the mental health of individuals. The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly affected it on a mass scale, leading to what many are calling a crisis. Amber discussed their research:

“Each year they do a survey across the United States about stress and its sources. [They ask,] ‘Where does it come from? How are people responding to stressors mentally and physically?’

And they started doing this report in 2007. They’ve seen different things over the 13 years of doing this that have really negatively affected stress levels, such as economic downturns, the impact of racism, and political conflict. … We’ve had all of [that] in one year. [What they found] in the 2020 survey was very different. It revealed that Americans have been profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the external factors Americans listed in previous years as significant sources of stress were still present and problematic.”

– Amber Setter

The COVID-19 crisis has brought attention to mental health in unprecedented ways. Some see this as an opportunity to take mental health seriously on a large scale, perhaps for the first time ever. While the topic has largely been taboo in the past, it’s more clear that it affects everyone on some level. As a result, there is an opportunity to make much-needed changes. As Amber shared in regards to the COVID-19 crisis, it’s mission-critical: 

“These compounding stressors are really having a real consequence on our minds and … on our bodies as well. It’s this unusual combination of factors that [has led] the American Psychological Association [to say,] ‘We really need to sound the alarm that we are facing a national mental health crisis that could really have significant consequences in the years to come.’”

– Amber Setter

Amber and Neil emphasized the importance of companies taking the initiative instead of waiting for change to happen. 

“Will the insurance industry change? Maybe when they realize they’re going to lose money because [they realize mental health] is going to be manifested in people’s bodies, that … when somebody goes out on leave it [qualifies as] disability [and] it’s costly.”

– Amber Setter

The implications of poor mental health go beyond an individual’s well-being and self-care. While those are undoubtedly important, there are also economic costs of having unbalanced or mentally unwell staff members.  

Why investing in mental health support services should be a business imperative

As the mental health crisis grows increasingly urgent, businesses can and should adapt to meet this demand. According to Amber, this will require a significant paradigm shift and actions that reflect it. We can’t do business as usual.

Amber explained how most businesses traditionally approach mental health services: 

“In this old world mindset, when we think about how [to] invest in people, what [we] invest in, and how [we] run our business, there’s a … belief that … people should feel lucky to have a job. Old world leaders might say that] the economy is bad, and people are losing their jobs … so [people are] lucky to have a job. [They’ll say] coaching is too expensive, therapy is too expensive, [and] mental health is too expensive. [They’ll say] ‘If you have a mental health issue, we have an EAP plan, go do that on your own time.’”

Amber Setter
happy young woman standing in front of support group

In Amber and Neil’s view, this is a huge mistake. This attitude is what accounts for many behaviors that are viewed as normal and that perhaps should not be considered normal. High levels of turnover are often expected, yet few people dive into why that turnover is so high. Could it be that the conditions in firms are so unsupportive of well-being that people choose to leave because they are burned out? 

“That is an accepted norm which I would invite you to think is actually unacceptable. … Maybe there’s something about the conditions that [causes] people [to] turn over—that [they’re] unacceptable, and that’s why really good people leave.”

Amber Setter

If you are beginning to feel burned out, is there a way to remedy the situation before you consider a job change? Could you begin to recognize signs of high stress and take steps to resolve them proactively? If you’re a leader in your firm, is there a way you could incorporate well-being initiatives to better support your staff? 

Amber provided a striking example of the economic burden high turnover presents. Her example detailed the turnover of someone at the director level, as it is common for a person at this level and who is going to partner to question whether to stay or go. Since many are too burnt out, they often do leave. She shared that the direct cost to replace this role is $45,000. On top of that are the indirect costs, such as loss of productivity from overworked remaining staff and loss of client fees due to turnover. In addition, there is recruiting, interviewing, hiring, onboarding, and training the new hire. 

Considering these costs, it’s well worth investing in the mental health of your team. Amber considers this to be the new way forward.

“Now there’s a new way of thinking, and there’s a new order, and I would invite all of you to come over to this new world and join in on this. Because whether insurance is going to change [or not,] … you’re going to save money by investing in your best people. In a new world, mental health initiatives are seen as a business imperative. They aren’t a ‘nice to have.’ They are a ‘must have.’”

Amber Setter 

She explained that when there are deeply stressful periods, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, burnout can peak. For example, those who worked in the tax department during 2020 experienced a 17-month long busy season because of the economic impacts of the pandemic. Counteracting this mass depletion should be a priority. Amber shared how that might look:

“What’s the reaction of a new world leader? They’re going to invest one year [of mental health services for employees] and they’re going to outsource mental health to an expert such as myself, or Jamie, or any other coach. … Mental health [is] really a cost-saving strategy. In this scenario, you would maybe pay [$20,000] to get some mental health expertise to your person … and you’re going to save yourself $25,000.”

– Amber Setter

Learn more about why prioritizing mental health is a MUST for accountants

Mental health hasn’t historically been given a lot of importance in the professional realm. As a taboo topic, it’s gone largely ignored, resulting in a lack of awareness. This means that many people hold myths and misconceptions about mental health, and are therefore unable to truly tend to their wellbeing. This is reinforced by barriers to getting affordable mental health care. 

Since mental health isn’t generally discussed or even seen as important to businesses, scenarios such as high turnover are considered “acceptable” when they might actually indicate a problem. Burnout is often the result of high-stress conditions and little support. Turnover has vast economic impacts on a business that could be avoided by supporting staff mental health and emotional well-being. 

Large-scale crises exacerbate mental health issues and can even create them, whether due to economic uncertainty, political unrest, or a global health crisis. The year of the COVID-19 pandemic occurred alongside many other crises, pushing mental health to the forefront of awareness, perhaps for the first time ever. This presents an opportunity to make big shifts in how companies understand and prioritize mental health services.

Gusto’s mission is to create a world that empowers a better life. We understand that professional aptitude and personal fulfillment go hand in hand. Don’t forget to check out our next two articles based on the same webinar, “Signs of a Mental Health Crisis in Your Accounting Firm” and  “A Guide to Supporting Your Accountants’ Mental Health.”

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Gusto Editors Gusto Editors, contributing authors on Gusto, provide actionable tips and expert advice on HR and payroll for successful business management.
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