New Culture, New Tools – How to Improve Mental Health in Finance Departments

Published  6 MIN READ

Finance teams are often looked upon with a certain amount of envy by colleagues in other departments. With transferable skills, good salary prospects and roles every business needs, members of the finance team are often viewed as clever bean counters with predictable, safe jobs.

Not very accurate. Within enterprise-level organisations, colleagues often fail to understand the intense pressures brought to bear on finance department teams. Immovable deadlines for month-end, quarterly and annual reporting requirements, when high volumes of figures have to be collated and shaped into meaningful narratives, are permanent fixtures on the calendar. And when the business wants to draft a new strategy, try out a new concept or run a series of scenarios around predictions for employment into the post-pandemic recovery, it’s the finance team that has to come up with the figures and work out costs and predict outcomes.

Other employees don’t see the long hours of unpaid overtime and, let’s be honest, the drudgery, that go into this. Or the out-of-hours time it takes to meet new requests from the boardroom or the sudden impact of factors such as changes to rules in the UK government’s furlough scheme.

All the work piled on to finance departments comes with the implicit expectation that accountants, financial managers, credit controllers, book-keepers and clerks will go the extra mile to get things done. In fact, a conversation with finance team members will often lead to their telling you they are always busy. When it is not period end it will be the pressures of the budget cycle or a project of some kind that consumes every hour of every day.

Measuring the mental toll

Last year a survey by UK job board CV-Library found almost two-thirds of finance executives said their work affected their mental health and about half were thinking of quitting. This has been a long-standing problem. Back in 2013, the Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association (CABA), found 35% of respondents had problems with excessive workload, and 25% felt they worked excessive hours.

The current situation with lockdown is a case in point. During times of crisis the finance team is in more demand than ever. You only have to look at the business press and on-line forums to understand that cash management and planning are the most critical short-term processes for organisations. From focusing on profitability, the majority of businesses have swung round quickly towards cash generation and the tight management of debtors and creditors. The responsibility to deliver this is placed firmly on the finance team. Other initiatives, such as cost control, are also strongly influenced by finance. While staff from many departments are being furloughed, very few finance team members are. This reinforces the fact that the finance team is critical in leading the organisation in a crisis.

Soldiering on during lockdown

The pressures of lockdown have especially hit junior members of the finance team, who have suddenly found themselves having to do everything at home. Not just the odd morning or afternoon, but every working day. Often this is without a dedicated office space or any equipment other than a laptop. Working in cramped surroundings, they have to access on-premises payroll systems or expense records using online portals that are far from user-friendly. They may well have to scrutinise every supplier’s costs to identify potential savings – not easy without simple, fast access to the records.

Remote access usually means team members have to resort to spreadsheets, inputting large amounts of data manually. This can be a soul-destroying process when planning scenarios under pressure during a time of crisis.

This is where so many finance departments have been left high and dry. Lockdown has exposed how many finance professionals are expected to soldier on without having the best tools available. With no viable alternative when working from home, they default to spreadsheets to run what-if scenarios so the business can see which projects it can continue to operate , or the products that still offer viable margins in new market conditions. The impact of new regulations or accounting standards, such as IFRS 16, also requires analysis, along with projections on headcount and salary costs.

Nurturing mental fitness in finance

It’s wrong to say employers simply don’t care about these problems. However, finance bosses and CFOs are focused on the reports they need for the board more than anything else. And in many companies, mental health remains a touchy subject.

In a recent online event, Jonny Jacobs, Starbucks’ Finance Director EMEA , provided some excellent insight into the subject. One of the points raised was that the phrase ‘mental health’ immediately conjures negative thoughts. Compare this with the phrase ‘physical health’ where the first thought of many is positive. What we need to appreciate is that everyone has mental health, for some it is good, for some not so. The language we use is important, so to talk about ‘mental fitness’ shines a far more positive light on the subject and the phrase has less stigma attached.

The uncertainty and risk of the pandemic, the isolation of lockdown and additional demands on finance teams are proof enough that we are in dangerous times. Now, more than ever, companies need to be aware of the mental fitness their finance teams.

Short-term action

We need to reduce stress by taking breaks and being prepared to close the laptop at a sensible hour. We know that a certain level of stress is necessary to bring out the best in people, but the same research also states that prolonged periods of it can be damaging.

It is all too easy for professionals to slip into putting in excessive hours when working from home without the right tools. This may result in high levels of stress. The problem will not disappear when lockdown ends. What will replace it will be stress and anxiety caused by returning to work or fear of job losses. So, companies need to ramp up their employee assistance programmes and maybe refer people to the #SpeakYourMind initiative by the mental health charity Mind, which is open to all.

Long-term action

In the longer term, an organisation without active employee assistance and a social media-type collaboration platform needs to invest in one. This will enable employees to check-in regularly with colleagues and line managers to dispel any sense of isolation or of excessive burden-bearing. This gives everyone the chance to share their concerns and provides managers with an up-to-date understanding of each employee’s state-of-mind. But organisations also need to equip finance teams with the right tools. They should invest in cloud solutions that give fast, flexible, anytime-anywhere access to the records and data they need for accurate modelling.

In research conducted by Generation CFO in April, entitled The Impact of COVID-19 on the CFO and the Finance Team, 47% of organisations surveyed had a finance transformation strategy in place. At that point in the pandemic, more than 52% said the priority for transformation had increased, with 23% unchanged. For too long strategies have been in place but, for whatever reason, transformation has failed to materialise. If ever there was a catalyst to transform, this crisis is it. . Companies need to find ways to be kinder to finance team members.

If we face another pandemic or period of lockdown, finance departments with access to all data and applications on a cloud-based solution will be capable of maintaining higher levels of efficiency with less stress.. This is not just about saving time, but about freeing up the mind space of hard-pressed finance professionals to think more creatively and strategically. And the transfer to cloud-based solutions should ideally happen relatively quickly to protect employees’ mental wellbeing.

From a finance team perspective, when things settle down after the crisis, companies need to drop the implicit expectation that finance goes the extra mile. Working long hours has been seen as a ‘badge of honour’ for too many years now, with staff burning the midnight oil to meet tight deadlines.

In addition to cloud-based solutions, mind-numbing, low-level tasks that consume far too much time need to be automated. Planning software and automation help to flatten out the peaks of demand that cause high levels of stress. Finance departments need to revive their skills as strategists and internal leaders, with staff working sensible hours. It’s good for them and much better for the business.

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