Manage mental health to avoid professional indemnity claims

 The COVID-19 pressure cooker has amplified the need for practices to safeguard their team’s wellbeing – not only from a compliance and moral perspective, but also to mitigate the risk of professional indemnity claims.

The pandemic has placed significant and sustained pressure on public practitioners. Staff are stretched to capacity supporting hard-hit clients and navigating new legislation – often, for those in lockdown situations, while remote-schooling children from a makeshift office. 

Unsurprisingly, an Accounting Web survey has found more than 93 per cent of accountants and bookkeepers’ stress levels were higher than normal last year, with 53 per cent revealing it caused them serious concern.

Many practitioners and their staff have not had a holiday, or even taken time off, for more than 18 months, increasing their susceptibility to fatigue and burnout. 

Inevitably, overtaxed workers make mistakes, which leaves practices vulnerable to professional indemnity claims, warns Drew Fenton CPA, director at Fenton Green & Co

“Most accountants have more work than they can deal with, and their clients are under severe stress,” he says. 

“Financial difficulty is the number one determinant in relation to having a claim, and claims, in turn, may have a negative effect on mental health and lead to further challenges.”

Managing employee wellbeing

To ensure staff can operate productively in the current climate, Fenton suggests employers offer wellness days – not necessarily as part of annual leave entitlements, but as an extra allowance that employees can use as needed, or on a regular basis during lockdown periods. 

Mental health, or “doona days”, should be normalised as part of the company culture, starting from the top down, with Fenton explaining it is no longer acceptable to expect staff to “push through”. 

“Certainly encourage or even mandate that they have some holidays, even if they’ve got nowhere to go,” he adds.

Emboldening staff to set boundaries around regular office hours is also important. Fenton says emails sent late at night are a clear warning sign that employees are burning the candle at both ends, with recent reports exposing a spike in unpaid overtime among remote workers. []. 

Yet with a study from Stanford University showing productivity per hour declines sharply when a person works more than 50 hours a week – so much so that any more than 55 hours is pointless – role-modelling a regimented routine with plenty of breaks is essential, both from an output and risk management perspective.

Steering the ship 

Employers have a duty of care under Work Health and Safety legislation to make sure remote staff have a safe working environment. 

Aside from minimising physical risks, they should undertake regular welfare checks, offer flexible hours where possible, and provide information about support services, as well as a point of contact for employees to discuss any concerns. 

Fenton also believes it is worthwhile to review employee files – “having someone peer review them, and even perhaps ring a few clients to find out how the employee is going, whether everything is alright and on track”, he says.

In order to keep team members abreast of new legislation and government initiatives, Fenton recommends reaching out to colleagues and industry peers, whether by tuning into webinars and podcasts, or by joining relevant social media groups to ask questions and share information. 

This is particularly beneficial for small practices, as it facilitates connections – a critical part of mental wellbeing. 

“They’ve got to talk to people and share their issues with others,” he says. “If you think you’ve got a problem, there are a hundred others out there who’ve got exactly the same one.”

December/January 2022
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