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When we think about health and safety in the workplace, many people’s thoughts jump to fire drills, first-aiders, and the dangers of dodgy cables and trip hazards. And while workplace safety legislation covers all those things, the umbrella rule that employers must provide a safe working environment for their staff also means they must minimise the risk of any work-related mental health issues, a particular issue for accountants in what is widely recognised as a high-pressure, stress-prone profession.

In short, employers have just as much responsibility for employees’ psychological safety as they do for their physical safety.

And workplace wellbeing is still very much on the decline. While the impact of the pandemic is still being felt and employees are adapting to hybrid ways of working, we’re also living through some very turbulent times globally, environmentally, and financially – felt all the more because of the constant bombardment of worrying information via social media.

Stress levels are high and a state of anxiety has become the norm for many, which has a knock-on effect for industry in the shape of poor performance and mental health related work absences. The Burnout Report 2024 by Mental Health UK found that 1 in 5 workers (20%) in the UK needed to take time off work due to poor mental health in the last year, and research by CABA found that 79% of accountants believe stress and poor mental health are a problem within the industry.

What is psychological safety and how can it be protected?

Psychological safety at work is about having an environment where people feel able to be their true self and express themselves without fear of negative consequences. It’s about creating a culture of acceptance, trust and respect so that people don’t feel like they have to put on a front, or be afraid to speak out.

A big part of psychological safety concerns managing people’s fear of failure – fear of being viewed as incompetent and that they’ll be risking their job security if they can’t cope. There’s a big difference between feeling like you can’t admit weakness because it will come back on you, resulting in isolated anxiety, to feeling like you’re able to admit weakness and ask for support from your team and manager that will help everyone move forward in the long run.

Creating an environment where mistakes are used as learning tools to optimise processes rather than opportunities to criticise is a key factor. If you feel like you’ll be accepted even if you make a mistake, you’re far more likely to put group thinking to one side and take a risk - to innovate, be creative and step outside the box in your working practices.

Another factor that contributes to people reaching their true potential depends on whether they feel like they have permission to ask questions, challenge decisions and practices, and disagree with colleagues on a professional level.

When people don’t have that kind of safe space at work, the consequences are far-reaching. If you don’t feel like you can be yourself, bring your own perspective based on your individual life experience, you’re not likely to be able to reach your full potential, take advantage of opportunities, use your initiative freely, or be able to fully collaborate with colleagues to create a genuine productive team dynamic.

Creating a positive working environment

As with many workplace problems, the solution lies in leading from the top. Managers are instrumental in making the kind of changes needed to create an accepting positive working environment, and others will then follow their example. Managers can also ask their teams the questions that need to be asked: how are you feeling, do you feel part of the team, do you know what to do if you make a mistake, do you feel able to challenge colleagues or those in more senior positions, do you feel like your opinion matters, what would make you feel more valued, and ultimately, do you trust your manager to support you. How people think and feel needs to be assessed for risk just as much as an office space does.

It's vital that people are encouraged to express themselves without fear, knowing that their opinion will be heard with respect, and not dismissed. The way people communicate their true thoughts also needs to be addressed and that will not necessarily be in the middle of a team meeting for everyone. Finding different ways for people to give their input and share thoughts is needed, particularly now that team members may be hybrid working and not always able to have open discussions face to face. High levels of communication and ways to facilitate it are required for both getting feedback and giving it. Just because someone isn’t there to physically receive that pat on the back for a job well done, doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be shown appreciation for their initiative.

With accountants’ susceptibility to stress, anxiety and burnout due to the demands of the job, making work a safe space should be high on everyone’s agenda in the profession. Our working environments may have changed beyond all recognition, but the dangers and hazards are still there – they just don’t necessarily come in the form of a wayward cable any more.

If you want to learn more about this subject, check out our 4-hour course Mental Wellbeing: Avoiding Burnout, which is verifiable CPD for accountants!

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