How to create a healthier work environment
How to create a healthier work environment Vertical

How to create a healthier work environment

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Let’s be honest. Accounting isn’t a profession known for fostering an environment that promotes high levels of physical and mental health. In fact, it’s well known for high stress and demanding workloads, which can negatively impact one’s health.

In light of this reality, year after year, articles are written, surveys are taken, and content is produced, highlighting some of the unhealthy aspects of the tax and accounting profession. So why hasn’t anything changed?

In this article, I’ll explore this topic, attempting to offer some practical solutions firms can implement to create a healthy work environment and overall healthier work experience.

Acknowledging the complexity of mental health

The first thing we need to acknowledge is that mental health issues are not the result of a single factor. There is no way to pinpoint a precise cause. This might seem discouraging because it leaves us wondering, “If we can’t define the cause, how can we fix the problem?” As a profession, the best thing we can do is foster practices that give our people an overall healthier experience.

Your firm won’t be the hero that solves a person’s mental health issues, but your firm can make sure that it’s not creating an environment that impacts a person’s mental health negatively.

What could contribute to mental health issues?

While the causes of mental health issues are multifaceted, there are common factors that can negatively influence mental well-being. One significant contributor is “unrealistic expectations.” Unrealistic expectations can manifest in different ways and originate from various sources within the firm, including the following:

  • Unrealistic leadership expectations: Unrealistic expectations from firm leaders typically lead to unnecessary pressure being placed on the staff. As the staff feels this pressure, feelings of disappointment, frustration, and lack of worth can develop. This could lead to a situation that negatively impacts a person’s mental health, such as expecting the staff to work just as hard as the owners or senior leaders. 
  • Unrealistic staff expectations: Staff having unrealistic expectations could look like the staff is making demands and requests that neither leadership nor the company can fulfill. Although the company may not be able to grant the requests, the staff could still be expecting the requests to be met. When this happens, feelings of disappointment, devaluation, and resentment can develop, creating an environment of more stress, drama, and dissatisfaction for everyone. For example, when someone expects a raise or a promotion when their job performance is below or barely meeting expectations.
  • Unrealistic client expectations: Unrealistic expectations from your clients leads to stress for leaders and the staff. This not only impacts the team’s health, but the financial health of the business as well. Clients expecting an immediate response to requests after working hours or on holidays is one example.

Potential solutions to overcome unrealistic expectations

One of the best ways to overcome unrealistic expectations is effective communication. While this may seem simple, effective communication is a powerful tool to minimize the potential impact that unrealistic expectations can have on mental health.

In our firm, we recently implemented the “Golden A.G.E. process” (Average, Good, and Excellent). This communication process has enabled us to foster and maintain a healthier work environment by:

  1. Identifying what A.G.E look like in our firm.
  2. Defining where we are on that scale today.
  3. Coming up with an agreed-upon plan to get to the next level.

This is how we apply the Golden A.G.E. process when addressing expectations in our firm:

Leadership expectations: When it comes to leadership expectations in our firm, we meet with the staff, engaging openly with them to discuss our expectations, and comparing our expressed expectations to the current level of our staff’s performance and capacity. This allows us to have honest conversations with our staff; consider possibly adjusting our expectations, and timelines or make other adjustments; and execute the best go-forward option and hold everyone accountable along the way.

Staff expectations: To help our staff avoid being locked into unrealistic expectations, the staff members’ manager meets with them to:

  • Understand what that staff member’s A.G.E. expectations are about the company.
  • Assess and see if there is a gap between what the company can do—and the staff’s expectations.

If the gap is closed, come up with a plan and timeline. If the gap cannot be closed, communicate and discuss alternative options; even if that may be a hard conversation to have.

Client Expectations: When the client has unrealistic expectations:

  • We take an honest look at our company’s capacity and capabilities.
  • We define what the A.G.E. for a client experience looks like.
  • We compare the price the client is paying, the agreed-upon scope of work, and the client’s expectations, to identify any gaps.
  • If the gaps can be closed, we come up with a plan to do so. If not, we revisit the scope of work with the client or help the client find another firm to work with.

All these solutions require honesty, clarity, and an ability to handle potentially tough conversations. As a firm, we don’t avoid these tough conversations, because we understand the impact unaddressed issues could have on the work environment—and by extension, our teams’ mental health.

Commitment to a healthier environment

Addressing mental health challenges in tax and accounting firms requires a collective commitment to promoting transparency, managing expectations, and having more honest conversations.

By implementing the Golden A.G.E, and actionable strategy, and fostering a culture that prioritizes honesty, clarity, and proactive communication, firms can create an atmosphere that minimizes the risk of mental health issues among employees. The result can be a healthier, more sustainable work environment for all stakeholders.

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