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Mind over matter

Jun 03, 2019
What is stress, and is it bad for you?

The dictionary definition of stress is “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”. In a medical or biological context, stress is viewed as a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stresses can be external (arising from environmental, psychological or social situations) or internal (stemming from an illness or a medical procedure). Stress can initiate the ‘fight or flight’ response, a complex reaction of neurologic and endocrinologic systems.

And so we start to see the see-saw relationship we have with stress. It is needed to charge our body and mind, so we can best prepare to deal with challenging situations. It also releases adrenaline to make us the strongest and most productive we can be – this is our friend. However, it is when this delicate balance is tipped that it becomes our foe.

The two sides of stress

For me, good stress is the feeling before an Ironman – I am nervous, tense, anxious (and indeed, often questioning why I am here!) However, I know that this feeling means my body is preparing for pressure and that the adrenaline being released will fuel my muscles. It is the feeling before a presentation in work or a tough meeting – to some extent, it is a comfort as I know that this will ensure my reactions are charged and I will deal with unanticipated questions.

However, stress becomes a problem when it significantly affects our emotional well-being and our ability to function at home, work or in our relationships. For a professional accountant, this pressure can sometimes arise from our work environment and as a member of the community of accountants, we should all be aware of the warning signs in others. Critically, the pressure often begins at the start of our career
when we are juggling study, lectures, learning the tools of our trade with clients and dealing with our peers.

However, throughout our careers, the lifecycle of an accountant exposes us to different pressures at different times. 

It is okay not to be okay

While we have come a long way in our ability to talk about our mental health, our profession appears slow to fully embrace the acknowledgement that it is okay not to be okay.

From my interaction with students in the profession and my peers, who are often employers, we are still not 100% comfortable, or indeed perhaps don’t fully understand the impact stress can have on a person. Also, not all places of work have a safe environment in which individuals can talk openly.

Yes, I am generalising here, but would you honestly feel 100% comfortable telling your employer that you were off on sick leave with mental health issues? If the answer is no, then as an employee or an employer we have an issue. And let us be honest, statistics demonstrate that we should see these sick certs as, on average, stress, anxiety and depression account for nearly half of all sick days taken in Ireland and the UK.

Stark statistics

Is stress, and the related side-effects when it becomes too much for us, more prevalent in accountants? Research by the Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association in the UK shows that more than eight out of 10 accountants suffer from stress-related problems. Over a quarter of accountants said they drink more than the recommended level and the study revealed that the suicide rate for female accountants is three times higher than the average for other occupations. Stark statistics.

So, what can we do as a profession? 

Well, we can ensure that our workplaces are open and transparent and that, most importantly, all staff can talk, voice their concerns and articulate when they are feeling stressed. We don’t need to go full throttle and bring in the massage chairs and yoga mats (even though this has been proven to help). However, we do need to ensure that as a community of accountants, we are there to assist each other and spot the warning signs.

It is okay not to feel okay – and the more we say it and really believe it, the more we will help break the stigma of mental health and ensure that the profession is a compassionate one that supports its members and enables and empowers people to speak up.

If any of the above strikes a chord with you, please note that CA SUPPORT is available to all members to help with matters of mental health.

Sinead Donovan FCA is a Partner in Financial Accounting and Advisory Services at Grant Thornton.