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Business advisors set to play key role in small business mental health

Counting on U, a new training program will help business advisors provide first-line support.

Business advisors will soon be able to better support small-medium business owners with a free workplace mental health program developed by Deakin University and partner organisations.

The Counting on U project received a $2.4M grant from the Australian Government to provide business advisors with mental health first aid training and builds on an earlier $1.1M NHMRC grant. 

Counting on U is one of two programs (alongside Beyond Blue’s NewAccess for Small Business Owners program) funded by the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resource’s (DISER) BusinessBalance initiative to provide mental health services and support to small-medium business owners.

A timely initiative

The project recognises the mental health challenges faced by small-medium business owners. The 2020 Small business and mental health report which revealed one in three small business* owners experienced stress, depression or anxiety over the past 12 months. Their key concerns are finance, business viability, and employee welfare. The study also found that small business owners are reluctant to report stress or seek help.

The DISER findings support a 2020 MYOB study that reveals 58% of small-medium business owners have been negatively impacted by COVID-19, with 66% of owners stating the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health, and 67% reporting feelings of stress and anxiety over managing their businesses under pandemic restrictions.

With the federal government’s business support program JobKeeper also ending in March, there is added imperative for business advisors to enhance skills in client support.

Representatives of front-line advisors agree. “This project could not have been introduced at a more appropriate time”, says Amanda Linton, CEO of the Institute of Certified Bookkeepers. Over the past 12 months she says her members have “cried, stressed, had sleepless nights right alongside their clients, predominately the small business owners of Australia.”

Strong support from key players

Across the professional bodies, there is strong agreement that accountants and bookkeepers are in position to provide more than business advice alone.

Andrew Hunter, CEO of CPA Australia, says that faced with the great economic turmoil brought on by the pandemic “Some will seek help from their accountant, and often that’s the only professional support they get, but meanwhile their mental health is unravelling.” 

Consequently, he says, “Given their frontline role, it makes sense to train accountants to provide mental health first aid. I see the Counting on U program as an extension of the work our members do every day to support Australia’s economy, businesses and community. Forming a coalition of accounting bodies allows us to magnify the care our members can provide.”

There has been additional funding support from Deakin University business partners, including:

  • Beyond Blue
  • Institute of Public Accountants (IPA)
  • Mental Health First Aid Australia (MHFA)
  • WorkSafe Victoria.

The Counting on U project will be delivered via:

  • Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand
  • CPA Australia
  • Institute of Public Accountants
  • Institute of Certified Bookkeepers.

The training has been co-designed and facilitated by Mentally Well Workplaces. Registered financial planners and insolvency practitioners who provide advice to small-medium business clients are also welcome to participate. 

How will Counting on U help?

While business advisors are often the first to detect signs of stress in their clients (and can be uniquely positioned as mental health “first responders”) the Counting on U program is not designed to steer them towards a mental health or financial counselling role.

Rather, it’s providing the skills for deeper conversations about financial distress and ways in which advisors can support clients experiencing mental health problems until appropriate professional help is received or the crisis resolved. 

“Accountants will learn not only how to recognise the signs, but also understand how to start a conversation with a client they are concerned about and refer them to professional help”, says Ainslie van Onselen, CEO of Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand. “There has never been a more important time for accountants to add this expertise to their toolkit. We are not out of the woods yet, many families and businesses are staring down the barrel of long-term financial problems which can often go hand in hand with mental health difficulties.”

Counting on U is fully online and free, the program provides training in client relationship building and mental health first aid (MHFA). The program:

  • is presented with tailored information
  • combines self-paced learning and live workshops 
  • is offered with booster sessions to support on-going learning and knowledge transfer
  • is offered with MHFA coaching support
  • has evaluation activities with feedback from small-medium business owners.

Making a difference already

The pilot program commenced in February and has already received positive feedback from participants.

Andrew Conway, CEO of the Institute of Public Accountants says, “The Mental Health First Aid course has helped me look for signs of mental ill health particularly during the pandemic and encourage individuals to seek that support. After taking this course I have had direct conversations and supported a number of individuals access clinical services.”

CA ANZ member Michael Rowe says the program “gave me a chance to better understand myself and others. I learnt to be curious, to genuinely listen and not to judge. But most importantly I learnt to help people (with mental health problems) that oftentimes cannot help themselves!”

Shanna Hunter, a CPA Australia member, says it has “contributed to my knowledge and understanding to recognise and provide support to clients, staff or the general public through my behaviour, speech and empathy. It was such an amazing experience to see the professional associations working together to educate and upskill those in our industry.”

Andrew Conway sums up, “If taking this course results in one person accessing professional services sooner, then surely it is worth doing.”

How can I access Counting on U?

The training will start in late April. Expressions of interests are now open.

You can contact Deakin University’s Counting on U team or the relevant professional organisations:

Find out more about the Counting on U training program here.  

Do you need mental health support?

If you or someone you know needs help, talking to a doctor is a good place to start. 

To find out more or if you would like to talk to someone that can help, you can contact:

  • Beyond Blue (anyone feeling depressed or anxious) — call 1300 22 4636 or chat online.
  • Lifeline (anyone having a personal crisis) — call 13 11 14 or chat online.
  • Suicide Call Back Service (anyone thinking about suicide) — call 1300 659 467.

*Note: report only speaks to small business owners (i.e. less than 20 employees), whereas CoU evaluates effects on small-medium bus owner

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