Over the weekend, it was announced that the Department of Innovation, Science, Energy and Resources (DISER) has awarded the IPA-Deakin SME Research Centre a $2.24 million grant for its Supporting Small Business Advisors for Better Mental Health project, which will see the professional accounting bodies unite to promote mental health.
The Institute of Public Accountants (IPA), Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CA ANZ) and CPA Australia are taking up the gauntlet in unison to ensure their members are equipped to recognise stressors among their clients and to support them.
The IPA has now confirmed that work is underway to implement the training in 2021, with the IPA-Deakin research team currently tasked with refining the training package before it begins seeking accountants wishing to partake in the program.
“Now the serious work begins with implementation. These steps are being worked on currently with the objective for full implementation during 2021,” said IPA CEO Andrew Conway.
“The research team are working on refining the training package and it will be distributed with the support of the three professional accounting bodies in Australia. We will be seeking accountants wishing to undertake the training and a group of people to be identified as possible trainers in early 2021.”
Speaking about the importance of the program, Mr Conway said it “will save lives”.
“Accountants, as trusted advisers, are critical intermediaries and small-business clients share much more than their tax returns. Accountants are often the first to detect signs of stress among their clients,” he said.
“They need to be equipped with the tools to have the conversation in a confident and safe way and have arrangements in place to refer clients to professional clinical support.
“This initiative will ensure Australians will get faster access to professional, clinical support which increases the chance of a positive outcome.”
He revealed that the IPA’s research through the IPA-Deakin SME Research Centre has already encountered widespread signs of stress, anxiety and possibly depression among small businesses and accountants.
“The training will equip them to have the discussion, better understand the warning signs and understand their limitations. This initiative is designed to support the clinical process by encouraging Australians to access support as soon as possible,” Mr Conway said.
The IPA included mental health in the second edition of its Australian Small Business White Paper, signifying that much more has to be done in this area.
“In going around regional Australia on our small business roadshow, we heard of many desperate stories of mental health issues — too many stories to ignore,” Mr Conway said.
But the pandemic has, he said, further exacerbated these issues.
“More than 70 per cent of our members are servicing small business or are small businesses in their own right. Accountants have been the frontline helping so many small businesses navigate through the various government stimulus packages such as JobKeeper,” Mr Conway said.
“The extensive hours this has taken has, no doubt, taken its toll and many of these hours have been deemed unbillable; such is the commitment of accountants meeting the needs of their small-business clients.
“The Victorian lockdown period has been particularly hard. The IPA has continued to make welfare check calls to thousands of members and in some cases we have connected members with a professional mental health service.”
The Supporting Small Business Advisors for Better Mental Health project builds on last year’s $1 million grant through the National Health and Medical Research Council, which is developing the training material, and was achieved in collaboration between the professional accounting bodies, Deakin University, Beyond Blue, Mental Health First Aid Australia and WorkSafe Victoria.