As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, Abigail Courtenay, Director, Strategic Talent Business Partners, at our parent company Ryan, addresses the common issues that affect well-being, and what burnout can look like in tax professionals.
The COVID-19 pandemic was difficult for many people in many professions, but with a myriad of government schemes around the world designed to help businesses during this period of unprecedented disruption, a heavy burden also fell on the shoulders of tax professionals.
The pandemic, and the energy and economic crises that followed, saw governments stimulate their economies through fiscal and monetary policy and businesses cut costs and diversify revenue streams. All these changes meant increased work for tax professionals, many of whom found themselves clamouring to meet shifting compliance regulations, tax incentives, and business realities, often with fewer resources.
Given this, perhaps it’s no surprise that the tax industry is experiencing the Great Reassessment, as talent looks to seek professional purpose beyond the paycheque and have second thoughts about their career paths, mental health, and quality of life outside work.
It is easy to see why this is becoming ever more important – 41% of those surveyed across Europe by Lifeworks were considered at high risk of a mental health issue, nearly triple the number found in equivalent surveys done between 2017 and 2019 before the pandemic. Nearly half (48%) are feeling more sensitive to stress now than they did before the pandemic.
More progressive and collaborative companies are steering their employees away from repetitive work, arming them with automation tools so they can use their talent and original thought to engage with larger and more strategic concepts to challenge themselves; this approach can be mirrored in the tax department. Tax functions that fail to think in these terms risk making themselves less appealing to the best external tax talent.
The problems of low well-being can range from dissatisfaction with a role to burnout at work: a peril for employees and employers alike. What are the risks to tax professionals’ mental health and what are the solutions businesses can consider to counter them?
The first and possibly most important part of putting the right measures in place is finding out what tax professionals really want. Before any measures are put in place to help reduce the likelihood of burnout, employers must speak to their tax professionals about exactly what will help them. There is a danger in assuming they need better software or fewer hours when, actually, the real benefits will come from a better understanding of and support of their function within the business.
Management can also look at engagement survey responses to determine which teams are under the most pressure. The findings can help you to make interventions like adding new staff, expanding team skills, changing or expanding responsibilities, or automating where possible. Other data like turnover and exit interviews can be used to see what can be done in the future and may give insight into leadership issues.
When designing benefits programmes, it is essential to ensure the whole person is considered. To do this, it’s helpful to address four pillars:
● Career – My love for what I do each day
● Physical – The vibrancy of my physical health
● Emotional – My connection with self, others, and community
● Financial – The security of my finances.
Many employers will want to avoid burnout for the individuals in their team, but they won’t be able to if they don’t know how to spot it. It can manifest in different ways, but some of the most common are:
● The team member often seems exhausted or distracted, or simply not themselves.
● The team member makes more mistakes than they normally would.
● There is a stark reduction in professional performance standards.
There are various common issues affecting the mental well-being of tax professionals. These are outlined along with suggested solutions below:
Problem: Compliance has become more strenuous, while the review, adjudication, application, and fulfilment of rebate/tax relief programmes have also become more complex in the wake of COVID-19 and the ever-changing regulatory landscape. This has put additional pressure on tax professionals who have been tasked not just with keeping up with all these moving parts but are expected to continue with the usual work they undertake day by day within the business.
● Solution: Invest in digital systems that reduce stressful, repetitive, and manual tasks. There are a wide range of software solutions that can take some of the repetition out of the typical tax function. These would leave the tax professionals with more time to deal with the additional burdens they are facing from increasing legislation.
Problem: Employees feel unheard like a cog in the machine. When employees feel they are not listened to, it creates disillusionment within the workforce. For the tax function, it is likely to become a source of stress as they are already tasked with taking on so much responsibility for the good of the company. The result is they will often have considerable insight into how the company can make better decisions in a variety of areas going forward, but if their input is ignored, they feel seriously undervalued.
● Solution: Encourage a culture of transparency and feedback in the department. Ensuring staff are listened to is not a one-off activity. It is a cultural shift that needs to be made within the business, where senior staff hold regular, informal, and repeating meetings with employees, as well as holding team meetings and brainstorming sessions. However, even if these are done regularly, the important part is to listen and act on what is found. You need to offer staff a chance to air their concerns and actively look for solutions – these meetings are not a time to be defensive. If the concerns are real and valid, they need to be addressed by the senior executives.
Problem: Employees feel their ambitions can’t be met in their role. We have all been there. In that job where you can’t see a way up the ladder without someone else moving on. This is something that can leave employees feeling they are stagnating and will quickly lead to key and talented people looking for roles elsewhere.
● Solution: Provide clear career pathway mapping and find high-value tasks for the team. If you have a big company, it may be easier for you to create a career pathway within the business as there is a greater potential for lateral movement. But even smaller firms should look to detail how their tax specialists can develop their skills and move up through the ranks. At all times, speaking to your employees to see what it is they would like to ultimately achieve is the best way to make sure they are happy. If they don’t know what they want to achieve, suggesting a career path can help. They need to feel comfortable enough with senior staff to tell them what they really feel. There must be trust on both sides.
Problem: Employees feel disconnected from and undervalued by the wider organisation. There is a tendency for many departments within larger companies particularly to work in “silos” where there is little interconnection between staff working in other areas. This fuels the feeling that they are disconnected from their peers, and if there is a lack of respect between departments for the part the tax function plays in the running of the whole business, it can lead to feelings of being undervalued.
● Solution: Integrate with other departments and establish the strategic value of the tax function as a profit centre. The best way to deal with this is to ensure that, at a high level, the culture of the company has all departments working closely together. This helps to ensure the tax function is seen as a key member of the team that can add value by increasing profits and reducing waste within each sector. Using an outsourced tax partner can help bring this culture to fruition if it is something the company is not used to, as they will have the ability to approach everything with a fresh take that is not burdened by any of the baggage that existing staff or the internal tax function may carry.
Problem: Managers in the tax department shoulder much of the anxiety that comes from the risks involved with mistakes in the reporting/compliance process, and these stresses can percolate down the department. The responsibility that the tax department takes on for the good of the business is often underestimated, and managers have so much of that responsibility that the anxiety surrounding it is also carried. The way that stressed managers behave with other staff in the tax department can create a trickle-down effect, leaving a higher level of stress and anxiety across the whole department.
● Solution: Focus on support for managers, and they will be better able to support and inspire their team. Managers are better placed to inspire their team when senior executives stand behind them when things go wrong. The level of detail and accuracy involved in the tax function is extreme, and that amount of focus comes with its own challenges. The feeling of not having the support of others within the business, especially senior staff, can play havoc with the mental capacity of those tasked with dealing with all tax aspects of the business. Consulting with an experienced external tax partner can bring much-needed support.
Problem: Mental health is an under-discussed aspect of general health. When you can see someone has broken an arm or a leg, it is easy to discuss what happened or how they are feeling. When the problem they have is with their mental health, not only can you not see it, but typically we all find it harder to discuss. This needs to change.
● Solution: Provide clear, easy, and free/subsidised pathways for mental healthcare. When your company is prepared to provide clear, easy, and free or subsidised pathways to help support the mental health of your employees, it becomes easier for them to get support and for the subject of mental health to be discussed. This is key to keeping the best staff within your business. For example, we have seen an increase in engagement with well-being tools at Ryan throughout the pandemic period. We are passionate about helping and supporting our staff and feel it is important to understand that we all need support, with the pressure that the cost-of-living crisis and the post-pandemic reassessment have put on all of us mentally.
The human, moral case for providing well-being support is clear, but the business case is powerful too. Given the cost of illness to an entire organisation is up to £1,560 per employee per year—for all employees, not just the ones off sick—an organisation with 500 employees faces a cost of £602,500, according to data from Luminate.
Helping employees with their mental well-being is not just good for them, it is good for your business too. Your team is likely to bring their best to the table every day and you are more likely to get the best ideas, providing better quality results for clients and making it a win-win situation for all.
This article first appeared on Accountancy Today.