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Counting on U set to expand

Deakin Business School’s (DBS) Counting on U program plays an important role in the mental health support of small business owners. Now, it will be offered more widely across the business and education sectors.

Over the past three years, mental health wellbeing has been a weighty issue across both professional and personal landscapes.

With the impact of an ongoing pandemic and accelerated rates of mental health distress, global governments and organisations have been scrambling to increase levels of support to already over-stretched mental health services.

It’s in this environment that DBS’s Counting on U (CoU) program could not have been timelier.

Officially launched in early 2021, the program has been delivering free, specialised training to thousands of business finance professionals – such as accountants, bookkeepers and financial advisers – to help them better recognise and understand the needs of small business clients who may be experiencing mental health distress.

Now, with impressive participation rates and feedback, Counting on U is set to expand and commercialise its offerings to the wider corporate and higher education sectors. 

The Counting on U concept

The Counting on U program was initiated by Professor George Tanewski (Department of Accounting) and Professor Andrew Noblet (Department of Management) as a DBS research and professional development program to help business advisers more confidently approach mental health conversations with small business clients.

Developed further in collaboration with academic, mental health, and financial service industry stakeholders, Counting on U training has now been rolled out to more than 3000 business advisers across Australia and New Zealand.

An integrated primary-prevention approach

Prof. Tanewski says that while the small-medium enterprise (SME) sector contributes substantially to Australia’s economic, social and cultural life, owning and operating a small business can be a uniquely stressful endeavour. 

‘Thankfully, amongst this adversity, we now have greater understanding of the importance of mental health along with a growing openness to talk about it. More business owners are beginning to put strategies into place to support their mental health rather than wait until the problem emerges.

By combining a primary prevention strategy – Relationship Building Training (RBT) – with Mental Health First Aid (MHFA),  Counting on U provides a uniquely-integrated approach for business advisers to safeguard the mental health of their clients.

Prof. Noblet says financial professionals are often well-situated to identify clients who may be experiencing mental health problems, but feel uneasy about raising concerns.

‘However when business advisers are equipped with the appropriate knowledge and skills, they not only feel more confident about having difficult conversations with clients experiencing financial and emotional distress, but it also provides the opportunity to form stronger, more trusting client relationships, and encourages clients to seek mental health support where appropriate,’ he explains.

Counting on U success

Delivered by DBS’s licensed training delivery organisations, Mentally Well Workplaces in Australia and Humanex in New Zealand, Counting on U has provided 430 online training sessions and 130 one-to-one online coaching sessions and received overwhelmingly positive feedback.

Analyses of participants’ pre-and post-training outcomes reveal significant increases in their knowledge of mental health issues, confidence in approaching difficult conversations and delivering mental health first aid (such as providing information on services and supports), and improved quality of client-business relationships. 

Additionally, participants also reported a significant reduction in stigma towards mental ill-health and their own psychological distress.

Ainslie van Onselen, CEO of Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand, says that CoU training comes at a pivotal time for ANZ businesses and business finance professionals.

‘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. [Through CoU] 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.’

What’s next?

With its solid foundation of stakeholders and evaluation success, Counting on U is now set to transition to a more publicly available fee-for-service model which offers training to a wider cross-section of business professionals including corporate clients from non-financial industries. 

Completing CoU training in 2023 will deliver digital MHFA accreditation, 0.5 RPL credit towards a Deakin Faculty of Business & Law postgraduate degree – including a Deakin MBA – and the opportunity to accrue up to 13 CPD points*. Deakin alumni will also receive a program fee discount.

Ongoing need for training

Prof. Tanewski says that as the role of advisers often evolves towards business mentorship – with a greater emphasis placed on strategic guidance and business development – there’s ongoing demand for relationship building and communication skills.

‘Relationships are the bedrock of all alliances between individuals. So development of relationships and trust is important for decreasing information asymmetry in business advisory situations where the quality of advice cannot be verified immediately by the client.’

He adds that trust is also directly linked to employee engagement, retention, productivity and innovation. 

‘Leaders who demonstrate trust and trustworthiness inspire higher levels of performance and commitment in team and organisational success.’

Broad appeal with a bespoke approach

With relevance to a cross-section of business imperatives – such as leadership, team development, stress prevention, and resilience training – Prof. Noblet says the Counting on U program holds broad appeal.

‘I’ve worked on workplace mental health research projects within health care and law enforcement where we trialled job stress prevention programs that incorporated supportive leadership development, workload management and mental health literacy training. Generally speaking, a bespoke approach that changes according to the needs of the organisation and its employees can work across a range of professional contexts.’

DBS Dean Professor Amanda Pyman says Counting on U is an outstanding example of Deakin’s commitment to be a catalyst for positive change to the individuals and communities it serves.

‘It also demonstrates the value of DBS research, our commitment to industry partnerships and engagement, and the important role DBS plays in addressing challenging, real-world issues.’

More information on the Counting on U program can be found here

*Members of Institute of Public Accountants, Institute of Certified Bookkeepers, Chartered Accountants Australia New Zealand, Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, CPA Australia

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