Speaking on the sidelines of the IPA Deakin Small Business: Big Vision conference in Melbourne last week, Deakin professor Andrew Noblet said that clients need accountants to be much more ambidextrous and versatile in the services they provide as the volume of mental health diseases among small business owners increases.
Recent MYOB research revealed 56 per cent of small business operators are suffering from feelings of anxiety or depression, mainly on the back of financial and cash flow concerns.
Moreover, out of the 757 small business operators surveyed by MYOB, 43 per cent reported that since starting a business, they have experienced some form of mental health condition. This percentage rose to 52 per cent of respondents for business operators aged under 40.
Professor Noblet, who heads the research into workplace mental health at Deakin University, said that given the circumstances and the prevailing nature of mental health issues among the small business community, accountants need to focus on addressing problems that may fall outside of their traditional remit.
“Having an accountant who is much more ambidextrous and much more versatile in the services they can provide, and providing general guidance around problem-solving, around strategic planning, around even workforce planning, someone who can do more than just the audit and compliance services, is incredibly valuable,” Mr Noblet said.
He explained that it is crucial for accountants to have specific knowledge in mental health due to their close proximity to small business owners. In fact, MYOB revealed that when asked where respondents are most likely to go for advice when they’re feeling stressed, most replied family (47 per cent) while their GP came second (31 per cent) and friends third (28 per cent).
“Accountants are often sitting across the table from a small business owner who is doing it tough, who is really struggling and mentally is having trouble keeping on top of things,” Mr Noblet said.
“That is where specialist knowledge in mental health first aid, for example, can be really important in being able to identify the signs and symptoms of someone who’s developing early anxiety or is in the early stages of depression.”
Mental health in the accounting curriculum
Asked whether mental health first aid should become a part of the accounting curriculum to ensure accountants are better equipped to respond to mental health issues faced by their clients, Mr Noblet said that anyone executing face-to-face human service work needs to have that sort of schooling.
“In the past, we’ve seen human services such as doctors, nurses, police officers, teachers and certainly those people need that training around mental health literacy… But I think there is a really urgent need for mental health literacy training to be included in undergraduate and post-graduate accounting courses and law courses, and other courses where you have professionals interacting with the public.”
Mr Noblet noted that there is a real opportunity here to ensure that someone who is showing signs of depression gets the treatment they need, early on.
Once they have that training, Mr Noblet said “it’s just a natural extension of the service that’s being provided by the accountant to then go on and say, ‘Hey, listen, I know you’re doing it tough, if I was in your situation, I’d be feeling exactly the same. But there are people out there who can help you’”.