Mental Health Falls Under CFO Remit

by Nina Hendy

Mental health has emerged as a key issue being handled by CFOs as they take the financial fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic in their stride.

Being in the driver’s seat when your organisation is haemorrhaging cash during a global health pandemic isn’t particularly conducive to good mental health.

But this is the scenario that CFOs around the world find themselves in. Aside from making sure they’re mentally fighting fit for this unprecedented battle, the mental health of entire teams has also fallen under the remit of the ever-stretched CFO.

It’s no mean feat even at the best of times. It’s estimated that 1.5 million workers are suffering with depression, impacting on workplace productivity, communication, morale and accidents at work.

Crunching the numbers

In fact, mental health issues cost Australian industry in excess of $15 billion a year, according to The Black Dog Institute. That’s likely to rise steeply this year, with government mental health initiatives announced in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, a recent workplace report found that work-related mental health conditions are increasingly prevalent. So much so, that physical health and safety is no longer the most critical risk in the workplace.

Released by Springfox, which provides resilience programs to individuals and organisations, the survey revealed that increased worry, fatigue and self-criticism are putting the mental health of workers at risk.

Springfox CEO Stuart Taylor is concerned that feelings of angst, fatigue and worry will worsen if employers take proactive measures to protect and strengthen their workers’ resilience.

“Studies suggest that by the year 2030, one in five people will suffer from some kind of mental ill-health, and in many cases, this could have been prevented,”

Taylor says.

Uncertainty reigns supreme

James Solomons is the first to admit he’s been battling one of the toughest periods in almost 20 years in accounting. The global CFO of reference checking platform, Xref.com operates in five countries.

“In normal times, CFOs take on their shoulder of responsibility for the financial health of a company, and this invokes its own ongoing mental health issues. But COVID-19 has taken that to another level,” Solomons says.

Of course, highlighting roles that should be considered for redundancy on a large scale is part of the job, but doing this during a pandemic is completely different, and far more stressful, he admits.

Usually, he’s got a strong grasp on what lies ahead in terms of sales based on forecasts and pipeline. “But then COVID-19 hit and uncertainty reigns supreme. We have cash in the bank but we have to protect our cash at all costs.”

Realising that other CFOS are in the same boat doesn’t make it any easier.

“Knowing that pretty much every business on the planet is doing the same thing, and that those let go will have an uphill battle to get a new job can really eat you up,” Solomons says.

No passing fad

Grants to fund the set-up of home offices and 15-minute check-ins with her team in recent months have worked well for the CFO of SAP ANZ, Gina McNamara.

These simple steps have proven powerful tool to keep staff connected and uplifted. Encouraging light-heartedness such as themed dress-up check-ins have also been a hit.

So much so that she’s determined to ensure the improved work practices remain in the company’s DNA once restrictions are lifted.

“I strongly believe that showing vulnerability as a leader and rallying openness and collaboration are some of the most empowering things you can do for your employees in these teams, and we’re in constant communication and are very honest with each other if anyone is struggling,”

McNamara says

Mental health was already well on the radar for Arts Centre Melbourne Finance Director, James Lockyer, an organisation with over 1,000 employees.

An initiative called the Arts Wellbeing Collective meant he had the tools at hand to help staff.

The program helps people in the broader entertainment industry who are at much greater risk of struggling with depression and severe anxiety by offering them practical skills, knowledge and resources to address mental health challenges.

This was the ideal platform to respond to the impact of COVID-19, which was felt so rapidly and significantly in his sector. Lockyer has also instigated daily online huddles that focused on connection, interaction and informality rather than anything work-specific.

“In addition to fulfilling their roles, our teams are having to juggle a myriad of other responsibilities: home schooling, child care, caring for aged dependents, playing a support role to family members overseas,” he says.

Striking the balance between empathy and flexibility to allow team members to fulfil all of these responsibilities and deliver what they need to in their roles was vital, he says.

“We all bring our whole selves to work, but remote working and online huddles has really increased the visibility of this.

“Toddlers joining team meetings, the occasional dog appearance – it has all helped us build an even greater sense of connection and awareness for our team and their lives, and this will have a lasting legacy beyond COVID-19,” Lockyer says.

He likes to think that the stigma associated with mental health is something of the past.

“It’s a fact that many of us will experience difficulties with mental health wellbeing. It’s incumbent on us as leaders to recognise this and to adapt accordingly,”

he says.

“It’s in everyone’s interest – enhancing employee wellbeing not only benefits the employee, but also has a direct impact on effectiveness and financial outcomes for the employer, too,” Lockyer says.

Mindful of mental health

For Solomons he says that making the most of family time during lockdown helped him to prepare for the ‘new normal’ of trading during such a financially devastating time.

“When making decisions, I’ve tried to act with as much professionalism as possible, and be empathetic with those who may be impacted, even if you’re not the person delivering the news.

“Also, remember that while a tough decision has been made, the other side of the equation is that you have been able to keep the company going,” Solomons says.

Getting help

If you’re feeling anxious or are worried about how that’s affecting your life, a great first step is to speak to your GP and get a referral to have a telehealth or in-person session with a registered psychologist, president of the Australian Association of Psychologists Anne Marie Collins says.

“Speaking with a psychologist does not mean there’s something wrong with a person. It’s normal to have struggles, and CFOs will be facing pressures and a fear of the unknown that they’re unlikely to have experienced before in their roles,” Collins says.

There’s some great resources for improving mental health in the workplace here.

If you’re experiencing mental health issues, you can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

5 tips for deactivating acute stress

1) Move: Any kind of physical movement is a great way of releasing build-up of excess energy that accompanies acute stress

2) Breathe: When you slow your breathing rate down, the uncomfortable sensations of fear and anxiety start to fade.

3) Ground: Connect to what’s happening in this moment right now and more consciously engage your senses.

4) Sleep: Given the importance of sleep on our mental and physical wellbeing, including immunity, establishing good habits around sleep is particularly important right now.

5) Connect: Try using video conferencing technology so that you can see each other, as we communicate best when we can see each other’s body language and facial expressions.

Source: Preventative mental health not-for-profit, Smiling Mind