Take care of your staff’s mental health during COVID-19

By Dawn Wotapka

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept into the United States this spring, accounting firm Seiler LLP activated its crisis plan, allowing employees to make arrangements to work from home.

On March 23, as employees from four offices logged on and work continued, departments ranging from HR to marketing remained involved to keep employees engaged, optimistic, and connected. “It’s a very simple equation, really,” said Lupita McLane, chief people officer of the Redwood City, Calif-based firm. “If we take great care of our people, they’ll do their best work for our clients.”

Carla McCall, CPA, CGMA, the managing partner of AAFCPAs, a tax and consulting firm based in Westborough, Mass., said employees’ anxiety at her firm has increased due to recent events. Some staffers did well at the beginning and struggled as the crisis endured. Others foundered early on and then discovered a groove.

“Not everyone is cut out for working alone at home. Some need the physical interaction,” she said. “Not seeing everyone in the office makes it more difficult for people to notice if someone is struggling.”

Working remotely can be challenging at any time, but now employees have to deal with additional responsibilities during extended isolation. “Even though employees aren’t physically in the office, keeping a productive workforce means making their mental health a priority,” said Tyler Arvig, Psy.D., associate medical director for Minneapolis-based R3 Continuum, a behavioral health and security consulting firm dedicated to workplace well-being. “The level of personal stress is unprecedented, and this bleeds over to the workplace.”

Here are some ways for organizations to promote CPAs’ mental health during the pandemic:

Communicate clearly. Regular communication from top leadership is important, McLane said. The messages must be consistent and empathetic and address top priorities and efforts the firm is making to support its people. Create a sense of transparency around changes as they come. “Clarity and a sense of predictability in communications helps dispel uncertainty,” she explained.

Check in. Touch base with staff regarding both their work and personal lives, McLane said. At Seiler, managers are strongly encouraged to have regular contact with their reports.

“This goes a long way to communicating sincere care,” McLane said. “How leaders, and organizations as a whole, support employees on many levels will be the ultimate barometers of company culture and employee experience.”

Listen well. As you inquire, be sure to focus on what the employee is saying, Arvig said. “Keeping employees healthy means taking the time to show that you care, are working to do the right thing, and are listening to any concerns that may arise,” he said.

As employees speak, be sure to give them your full attention. Don’t downplay their concerns, thoughts, or feelings, and show genuine interest, said Dmitri Oster, a New York City-based clinical social worker and founder of United Consulting Services LCSW. “This helps to build a personal connection with somebody, and the strength of personal connections right now is paramount as they often help serve as buffers against underlying anxiety,” he said.

Encourage self-care. From the beginning, AAFCPAs stressed taking care of yourself, McCall said. Leadership encouraged partners and managers to set an example by openly scheduling self-care time on Outlook calendars. “The point was that we had to make it OK for people to take time out of their day for mental health breaks, whether it is taking a walk, playing with their kids, or baking,” McCall said.

The firm is also creating a digital checklist with links to websites about mental health and reminders for scheduled wellness check-ins. It previously circulated a two-page guide with crisis resources and tips for stronger mental health.

Emphasize that firm leadership supports mental health. As McCall observed, “We work in a high-pressure and deadline-driven profession, and with the added challenges caused by the pandemic, it’s taking a toll on our minds and emotions in a million little ways.” Therefore, she said, “firm leadership needs to communicate firmwide, regularly, the importance of prioritizing mental health.”

It also helps when leaders share their own struggles, McCall said. “They must emphasize that individuals are not alone in their challenges and in how this is affecting them emotionally and physically,” she said. Leaders can help by sending the message that “it is OK to not be OK. It’s not a sign of weakness or lack of professional competence.”

“This tone at the top is critical in helping overcome the stigma of mental health and to instill courage in others,” she added.

Be present. In the absence of “open door” policies — where bosses allow employees to drop in for unscheduled conversations — leaders need to be available and responsive to digital chats and text messages from employees. This “will provide people with a sense of belonging and help them feel connected to the firm and their teams,” McLane said.

Allow flexibility. With homes also serving as offices and with children around, some employees may have to alter their schedules to juggle multiple demands. According to Arvig, increasing flexibility “is a great way to allow employees to feel more supported in their health.”

McCall’s firm encouraged employees “to design schedules that help them balance other needs, like self-care, child care, home schooling, and household duties.” These schedules are not necessarily going to be the same for everyone, she said.

Tone at the top is important in promoting flexibility. McCall’s firm conveyed the message “that meeting former billable hour expectations is not our priority under these extraordinary circumstances,” she said. Instead, staff “are asked to focus on meeting deliverable expectations and to emphasize regular communication.”

Have fun. Don’t forget to have virtual team-building events and celebrations, activities that help reduce isolation while maintaining workplace camaraderie and friendships, Arvig said. Seiler recently held a virtual baby shower, and staffers have shared photos of everything from amateur haircuts to home offices. “Celebrations don’t stop in the middle of a pandemic at our firm,” McLane said. “We need them more now than ever to keep our spirits up.”

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Georgia. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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