Mental health matters: How asking the right questions can help

Hosted by Neil Amato

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it's the focus of this episode of the Journal of Accountancy podcast. Kari Hipsak, CPA, CGMA, senior manager–Firm Services at the AICPA, explains why mental health matters to her and shares advice for how managers and organizations can better promote mental health of their staff.

Several resources are mentioned in the episode:

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • Why Hipsak says "our emotions deserve an appropriate outlet."
  • The importance of the phrase "If not me, who?" for Hipsak as it relates to sharing about mental health.
  • Why the standard, mundane response to a simple question can be detrimental to mental health.
  • An explanation of a mental health-focused toolkit created by the AICPA's Private Companies Practice Section.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:


— To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at
Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.

Transcript:                                                            

Neil Amato: May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and the goal on this episode of the Journal of Accountancy podcast is to do just that, raise the awareness of the importance of addressing our mental health. I'm Neil Amato with the JofA, and you'll hear a conversation on several aspects of mental health after this brief sponsor message.

Amato: I'm joined by colleague Kari Hipsak for this episode. Kari's a repeat guest on this podcast but a first-timer on the mental health topic. Kari, welcome back.

Kari Hipsak: Thanks, Neil. Always happy to be on the podcast.

Amato: You were recently on a different podcast, the podcast of John Garrett, who definitely counts as a friend of this program. He's the host of the What's Your "And"? podcast, and he had you on to talk about mental health, which is an important topic. What to you are some of the highlights if you are going to tell your friends, "Hey, check out this podcast I was on"?

Hipsak: Honestly, looking back on that podcast, I think I sound a little whiny. I essentially say, here are my most influential things that have happened in my life and how I had to adjust my coping mechanism, or my "And" in the words of John, and I almost asked him to stop and re-record the podcast because I wanted to focus on why it's important to take care of yourself and give yourself credit for the things you go through versus what I felt I had been doing, which was telling my life story.

Thankfully, John must have been a mind reader and he addressed those concerns in the podcast, stating that in its most boiled-down form, I was using my life as an example for others, and it was a tough conversation, knowing I was putting so much out there.

Overall, my hope is that those, whether they're my friends or not, those that listen to the podcast see it's OK to acknowledge the things we go through and for those especially tough times as best to seek help.

I'm not broken, you're not broken, but rather life can be intense, and it's important to acknowledge our emotions, know that our emotions deserve an appropriate outlet and not to be buried.

Amato: To summarize some of that topic probably much too quickly, I would say that the version of you in the past might've thought that simply putting your head down and working would be enough to make some other issue in your life go away. I know it's simplified, but would you say that's accurate?

Hipsak: For me when I get over-emotional, whether it's sad or stressed or even in some cases happy, I always revert back to the place where I can essentially lose myself. Doing my job requires focus and concentration, but it doesn't require me to think about what I should be concerned with, which is, how am I feeling?

There are 168 hours in a week. You take away 56 because we're going to assume we all get a perfect night's rest of eight hours a night, and we take away 40 hours for work, and that gives us 72 hours a week to deal with life, whether it's groceries, laundry, paying bills, or spending time on the things that we enjoy as a person.

When I increase my work hours, I've always been able to take away from the time I had to spend analyzing my life. In my podcast with John Garrett, I mentioned after my dad passed away, I ended up working a lot of hours, and most of that was just to not have to deal with losing my dad, and I didn't realize how much I called him throughout the day.

He worked nights, so I feel like I always had someone to talk to whether it was a lunch break or if I just needed a quick break in the afternoon to reset, he was always there. When he wasn't anymore, I just went back to my old self, which was work and work, and not have to think about any of the things I was missing.

Amato: Also, we will link to that podcast episode so that people can hear a little bit more about it in the show notes for this episode and perhaps some other resources that we think are important for this topic, I'll just say that now. You talked about that time in your life where your father had passed away.

I believe you were just starting a new big job in New York City. Again, I'm not trying to single out your co-workers or your organization, but my guess would be that it was a time when mental health was maybe less top of mind in society in general and especially in the so-called "life in the big city" job that you had.

Unless you specifically told people what was going on, did anyone ask, "How are you doing?", or maybe you didn't feel like it was the right time to speak up?

Hipsak: I think some people I encountered at this new job, these people knew I was starting and then I had a delayed start, so there are questions about why are you here now and not later. Some of these poor people I think ended up getting more than they expected when they would talk to me, and there were times when I just couldn't not talk about my dad and the things I had gone through.

But people did, and I think people still do ask how we're doing, whether it's me or anyone else, and I think the reality is, that has become a standard, mundane question that we ask. There's a social understanding that if the response is truly anything other than "I'm doing well," we still say "I'm doing well," because we don't want to be that person that changes the conversation to themselves.

We don't want to be the person that brings down a co-worker, who might have a cheery smile on their face, and because of that, it was by no fault of anyone that I didn't feel like I could speak up. Although like I said, I did sometimes force it.

But it was truly a societal norm. It's the reason that, although I was very critical of the podcast I recorded with John, I told myself I had to push through with it so that maybe someone else out there felt that need to speak up and they could seek help if it was necessary.

In my head, I kept repeating the phrase, "If not me, who?" I went back and forth before the podcast was published, asking myself and others if they thought I should even let it be published.

I was so worried about everything I was putting out there. I don't want anything I said about myself to ever be used against me, I don't want people to think less of me. I felt like it was all my flaws coming out in one place, and the idea of opening up our flaws for all to see is at best nerve-wracking and at worst absolutely terrifying.

I hope, in opening up about the realities of maybe what people don't see when they look at my bio, which lists all the positives. I hope that we can all acknowledge behind the positive bio, there are things that happen to us, and it's OK to talk to other people about those less-than-positive experiences.

It's OK when you ask someone how they're doing to actually mean it, and if you notice something in the way someone answers that seems like their answer is not authentic, that you feel comfortable and saying, "This doesn't seem like you're OK. If I'm over-reading or if I'm reading into this, just let me know." But it doesn't hurt to show someone that you care.

Amato: Maybe it's that we need to stop asking that question the way we do it because we're in that routine like, "Hi, how are you doing?" You just expect a really short, "Oh, doing fine. How are you?"

It's like part of our silly social norms that if we're not, I don't know, maybe changing up how we ask it. It's just not effective sometimes. It's just a thought I had.

Hipsak: I love that you brought that up. It actually reminds me of one of my friends from high school. She's now a clinical psychologist. She actually specializes in the art of positive psychology, and it's relatively new in the spectrum of psychology because psychology typically looks at things that are broken and how to fix it. But instead, positive psychology is looking at things that go well and how to keep things going well. When you brought that up, about changing how we say hello. When we don't go into the typical, "Hey, how are you?," it's a way to analyze what we're doing to create the best experience for someone going into it.

We're not trying to fix what's broken, we're trying to make it better and that reminds me of positive psychology. It's a little bit of a stretch, I'll acknowledge that. But I think if you go into any interaction looking at the positive of how I make this better, it's always the best alternative to how do I make this not be bad?

Amato: I think there's value perhaps in that simple check-in, especially as we're in a more remote environment, not a fully remote environment these days. But maybe simply saying to someone a slightly different question like "What's new in your world?" or "How are things going?" as opposed to just that "How are you doing?"

Hipsak: Yeah, that's a great point to ask a more targeted question then. I guess I always abbreviate it and I let my accent come out and say, "Hey, how are ya?" But when you ask for more specific examples of what's new in your world or how are things going, hopefully, it's a little bit more difficult to say, "Oh, everything's going great."

Alternatively, I think as a leader, you also have the opportunity to say, "Here's what's going on in my world. What's new in yours?" I think when you put some of yourself out there, it also gives the other person permission to open up as well.

Especially in an employer-employee or boss, supervisor role, whatever you want to say, if you're going to your direct report and you're saying, "Hey, tell me about your life." You're still their boss. People are going to want to act professionally. Bringing the personal world into the professional world doesn't always go over well. As a boss, if you can open up a conversation and even say, "I acknowledge that in this meeting I'm a little distracted. I had a long weekend. My water pipes broke," something on those lines.

It gives you an opportunity to be a human and acknowledge that not everything can be shut off in your mind, and it also gives your direct reports an opportunity to know that you're not a superhuman who only talks about work, but you actually have a life outside of work, and those things can impact you during the day as well.

Amato: Those other things that we can bring up and maybe make other people then feel comfortable bringing up. Those are exactly the "and" that John was talking about because I do agree with him that you get hired in an organization, someone is hiring the whole person, they're not just hiring Kari Hipsak, CPA.

No matter how you're asking the question, "How are you doing?" or "What's new in your world?" Especially in an environment where you're not seeing your direct reports all that consistently, certainly probably not every day and maybe only once a week or less if they're working in another city. What should be the frequency of those types of check-ins with the person?

Hipsak: I think the frequency depends on the person. Neil, you and I have had conversations about emotional intelligence before, and this is part of where being able to empathize with people and relate to people and the need for emotional intelligence comes into mental health awareness.

There are hopefully opportunities that leaders have to work with their direct reports on a fairly consistent basis, and as you get to work with someone and get to know them, there are little nuances about personalities that can come through and even chat.

As you get to know someone, you can pick up on their responses being their typical self, or you can pick up that something might be on their mind, whether it's their responses are getting shorter, maybe there's someone that when they respond to you, they typically write out full sentences, and now you're getting one-word answers.

It never hurts to reach out and ask them, "Do you feel overwhelmed? Is this why your responses have gone shorter?" Maybe leave that out. You don't want to act like you're spying on them. But in your head you can just say, "Hey, I know there's a lot going on right now. Our team has a lot of pressure on it. Do you feel like you have everything you need to succeed? Do you feel overwhelmed? Do you feel like you can take on more?"

Use it as an opportunity to maybe check in a little bit more if you see some of their normal patterns adjusting. But again, don't make them feel like you're putting them on blast.

Amato: Now, I've written about surveys recently in which companies say one strategy they plan to use to retain employees is to pay them more. A comment about that survey that I saw on social media said, essentially, sure you're going to pay them, but how are you going to value them? I think that's a really interesting point on this topic related to mental health, that just offering more money is not enough.

What do you think are the ways that firms and other organizations can make sure they're truly valuing those employees?

Hipsak: That is a great question. Part of the difficulty in valuing employees is that every person is different. I don't know if you've heard of the love languages. But you take this assessment like strengths-based leadership. It tells the ways that you like to essentially be appreciated. Whether it's words of affirmation or acts of service, something along those lines, but the key point that I'm trying to make here is that everyone's different.

Regardless of what an organization does, it can't be one-size-fits-all. I think that comes through in a lot of different areas. When I was starting my career, the open office concept was really popular, and firms were touting that they could have this open office environment. As an introvert that likes to get into a flow state, the open office environment was absolutely awful to me. I disliked it immensely. Now there's this whole talk about going back to the office. What if people want to stay working in remote? How do we get people back into the office? But the thing is there are people that actually perform well at home. There are people that like to get into that flow state and they actually get more distracted in the office.

There are some people that might be looking for an organization that has a strong office presence, and they want to go to the office five days a week. There might be people that are looking for a firm that has a more flexible arrangement where they want to go into the office once in a while, and then they're OK with connecting with their colleagues on some of the days.

Then there are people that might just thrive in a fully virtual work arrangement. There always has to be some ability to be flexible and to be understanding of your employees. Maybe there's something that can be done on the the hiring process where you ask your employee or future employee, whatever the case is, how do they like to be recognized?

Some people like to be recognized in large crowds. Some people prefer private pats on the back. If you switch those up and you praise someone in public when they're a little bit more reserved, you can actually make them more uncomfortable.

It's not an easy, one-size-fits-all answer. But rather it's just about getting to know your employees, to let them know that you value them and their preferences, regardless of whether it's for acknowledgment for their work from home style, even working in the office style.

Amato: It's a small thing that how do you prefer recognition? I'm not sure I ever thought about that. I would have just gone with the, oh, they'd love to be recognized in public in front of a large group because then you're letting a bunch of people know.

Hipsak: Well, now I know how you like to be recognized, Neil.

Amato: Well, there's no simple way to put a bow on the topic, but anything else you'd like to say for Mental Health Awareness Month, the topic of this episode?

Hipsak: Yes, I agree there's no easy way to summarize or wrap up mental health awareness. Coming off of basically a two-year pandemic, there were more instances where mental health awareness was brought to light, and I am very proud that the profession has started to incorporate more mental health awareness and acknowledgment and the need to understand the importance of mental health.

The team that I specifically work for at the AICPA, the Firm Services team is actually putting out a toolkit for Mental Health Awareness Month. My colleague, Lindsey Curley, was also profoundly impacted by mental health and some of the struggles that it raised when her family was touched by a suicide.

She has also been very adamant about promoting mental health awareness as well. She has helped to create this set of tools that firms can use, and I look forward to them being on the site so that firms can again still keep this momentum going with the importance of mental health and the profession.

Amato: Again, that was CPA Kari Hipsak. We appreciate her time on the podcast. We expect to have another mental health-related interview later in the month, in addition to our coverage of the news and trends affecting our finance audience. We hope you like what you're hearing on the show and that you'll subscribe, share, rate, and review the Journal of Accountancy podcast wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.