Wellbeing: The Audit Agony Aunt
Are you an audit, risk or compliance professional with a question about wellbeing and mental health in the work place? Take a look through our questions and answers from the Audit Agony Aunt series:
"Just to explain the situation I have to face just now: there is a Director in my Company, he is my peer as we are leading two different service lines, but he is some years older and he started in this Company 2 years before me (14 years!), just on establishment time. Therefore he thinks to be more than a peer for me (even if there is no defined higher level).
Occasionally he starts to scream against me or to complain about me with my team or our further peers, just like a sport. The grounds can be various and different: sometimes because I am too strong or too smart with my team, because I show too strong opposition when I disagree with my peers, because my success is due to my team and not to my own effort, because my team is too loyal and doesn’t want to criticize me, because I should work more… I don’t know. This week he wanted to have a meeting with me and I had to sit in front of him and hear about 90% of people working with me do not want to have anything more to do with me, because… I don’t know why. He wants to treat me really badly every time and if I ask him why I am still on board in a leading position, he just tell me “I am not in the position to decide!”. (This is the confirmation that he is just a peer…).
What can I do? In the past I decided to ignore him. But at the end, there is always someone who is caring about him and usually this appends when bonuses have to be defined at year end. So I am definitively losing the game. Moreover even if I try to ignore him, the way he is acting is disturbing me and I cannot avoid thinking of him and being distracted from my job and business priorities. This is damaging my quality of life.
How can I handle with him? I am not sure he can be considered a “difficult person”. Usually I am able to deal with difficult persons. This is different."
Thank you for your kind words on the Resilient Auditor series and your enthusiasm for the new programme. Your current challenge is quite complex, so I have broken it down into three areas:
- Your performance
- The behaviour of your colleague
- Your wellbeing
First up, I would suggest that you take an objective look at your own performance, particularly in the areas that he is criticizing. This will involve reviewing or gathering feedback from your line manager, your direct reports and possibly other peers. You probably already have an appraisal process but if not or you need to collate some more in depth evidence, then you should request feedback and gather facts and data that support your self evaluation (as opposed to his). The purpose of this is firstly to build your confidence and help you articulate your 'case' based on third party testaments but also to test your self assessment for any vulnerabilities that he may seize on. You sound self-assured and this exercise is effectively 'due diligence' to support and boost your self confidence by encouraging you to be personally critically reflective.
Secondly, by any measure, your colleague's behaviour is not acceptable. While there is no legal definition of workplace bullying, according to the UK's Health and Safety Executive, experts believe that bullying involves negative behaviour, targeted at an individual, repeatedly and persistently over time. I would suggest that the screaming, the criticism of you to your team and his destructive attitude, which is clearly causing you distress on an on-going basis, would all fall within the definition of workplace bullying.
To tackle workplace bullying you will need to get help. Writing to CareersinAudit and laying out the problem is your first step but you also have to seek support from within your organisation. Asking for help may not come naturally; you may feel that you are being overly sensitive or you may, deep down, question some of the criticisms that are being levelled at you or even fear reprisals as a result of whistle blowing. That is why we suggest that you first employ the critical self reflection exercise described above, this will help you more objectively appraise the situation and to make a case to yourself for the need for support.
The next step is to look at your organisation's process with regard to bullying. There may well be a formal policy in place which will provide a definition of unacceptable behaviour and take you through the steps to access support. In the absence of a formal policy, find someone at work that you trust to talk through the situation. This might be someone you know well, like your line manager or a peer, but it could equally be an HR representative or a helpline. You may find with their help that you can manage the situation informally by having a frank discussion with the perpetrator about your feelings around their behaviour towards you. Or it may be that a more formal approach is required via mediation and/or making a formal complaint.
You do need to do something. The overarching consideration here is your own wellbeing. You have said that his behaviour is disturbing you and affecting your quality of life, not to mention the potential affect on the quality of your work. You are describing precisely the sort of work place anxiety that feeds into a mounting cycle of pressure that builds to stress. If you need a reminder of the insidious effects of chronic stress on your health and wellbeing, have a look at part six of the Resilient Auditor. This is not a situation that you can afford to let lie. I hope that my suggestions have empowered you to take action, get back to a place of control and receive the career recognition you have earned and continue to deserve.
"More of my team are working from home and I feel that as a result I am getting lumbered with fielding more enquiries and sorting out more problems. Communicating with them is also proving more time consuming. I can't help feeling resentful, especially as my workload is already very heavy. What should I do?"
Communication is key here.
Open up this topic for ongoing discussion with your line manager. You are looking for formal acknowledgement of differences between the roles and responsibilities of office-based and home-based workers. Once this has been officially acknowledged you can then negotiate on reward and recognition (salary, benefits, status etc), additional support and/or compensatory change in other parts of your role.
This discussion will also highlight to management, the need for an organisational strategy regarding home-working. You may find that they are unaware of the practical differences between the two roles and they may choose to look at alternative ways of tacking some of these issues. Examples might be:
• Is it practical or even possible for home-workers to deal with the problem solving aspects of the of the job?
• Is there another or better way of fielding enquiries, sorting non-routine problems?
• Does department need additional or a different type of resource?
In the meantime, you can take the lead on a team communication strategy that can give you some immediate relief. For each team member document, agree and circulate the following communication information:
- Days/times not contactable
- Preferred means of communication – mobile, landline, email, instant message or other
- Target response time
- Arrangement for contact regarding ‘urgent’ business matters and definition of what constitutes ‘urgency’
- Alternative named contact for specific projects/functions of role
"I have a client who is very tactile and ogles a lot at meetings. He has never taken this further, but it makes me feel uncomfortable. What should I do?"
Is it just you or have you noticed this pattern of behaviour with anyone else? If this is his universal style then you could seek safety in numbers by planning a way forward together with other affected parties. If you don’t feel personally threatened, and you can see that this is the way he is with everyone, you might even choose to accept it and live with the discomfort.
However, if it is only you that gets this treatment or you feel personally threatened and decide that something has to change for the relationship to continue, then you are going to have to tackle him. Try responding directly to a specific example of unwanted behaviour with a brisk ‘I’d rather you didn’t do that if you don’t mind’ or ‘is there something wrong. I was just wondering why you were looking at me’.
Give it a try but don’t risk jeopardising your own safety or the client relationship. Trust your instinct and get help from HR if your initial tentative attempts don’t quickly elicit any change.
"I’m a new Dad and I haven’t had a whole night’s sleep for weeks. I’m exhausted all the time and find it difficult to concentrate. I even feel asleep in a meeting the other day – luckily an internal one. My colleagues seem sympathetic, but I feel my performance has taken a dive and I’m worried about making mistakes. Have you got any advice?"
Congratulations! Although, it is indeed a tricky time, balancing the joys and pride of new parenthood with the relentless demands of business as usual.
First up pay attention to your overall health. Don’t under-estimate the essentials: regular exercise, relaxation and a balanced diet. No need to be too ambitious; a daily 20 minute brisk walk will take care of the first two. Healthy eating diet can be one of first things to go when there’s a new baby in the house. Make sure that you are eating fresh, nutritious balanced meals at regular intervals. Go easy on the take-aways and don’t get by on quick fixes from caffeine or sugar.
On the sleep-side, look for opportunities to ‘grab it when you can’. Studies have shown that power naps can benefit us all, not just the sleep-deprived. If lunchtime is out of the question, consider a quick one when you get home (after you’ve done your Dad stuff!). A typical powernap is 20 minutes, but it can be even less.
At work you’re feeling that your performance has dipped. Check this out – it may only be your own perception. Talk to your line manager; be up front about your concerns and explore how the organisation can help. Extra resource, flexible hours, a change in responsibilities- these are all possibilities to ease you into your new routine. But do come clean. You’ll feel better for sharing your worries and if you do fear mistakes, you owe it to the business and yourself to get help to manage any risk.
"I find it really difficult to say no. As a result I seem to be the ‘office mark’ in terms of picking up loose ends when people have left, clearing up other peoples messes and being in the frame for any extra duty that’s going. I’d love to be more assertive. What can you advise?"
As accountants, we’re members of a profession and that means we pride ourselves on high standards of technical knowledge, client service, ethical conduct. We aim high. Our culture encourages professional stretch. Against this backdrop, is it then surprising that ‘no’ is often considered a dirty word?
But unless you’re a person with complete mastery of life’s chessboard, the inability to say no can mean loss of control leading to frustration, ill-health, stress, poor performance. It can take you away from your core goals (professional and personal). And it can lead to emotional unrest – guilt, unhappiness, loss of confidence.
Plus, of course, it’s not always easy to say no. For instance, when should you say no? Obviously, you would decline a task that’s beyond your competence. In other cases, though, you could ask yourself a few questions. What would be the consequences if you refused? Does your contract allow you to say no? (Serious question – your contract won’t say that exactly but your role description or your HR contact will give you a decent heads up.) If you did as asked, would your own core goals be advanced?
These are all valuable self-coaching questions to determine when its right to say no. But how do you actually do it?
- Tone is total. Be convincing but not aggressive. You are aiming for an assertive, firm retort that is polite and respectful. Say no and mean it; to the person you are saying it to, but above all, to yourself
- Body language matters. Align your body with your words. What is your expression saying? Is it reinforcing your ‘no’ or is it expressing heartfelt regret? A mixed message will dilute the effect and open you up to possibly unwarranted negotiation. Look the propositioner in the eye, take an assertive stance, reinforce with a robust shake of the head. If you are sitting down, stand up. A written ‘no’ should adopt the same style, firm, direct, straight to the point
- Words count.
- The first 5 seconds are crucial. Say no at the start of the sentence
- Be concise without being abrupt
- Avoid ‘I’m sorry’, it suggests guilt and the potential to weaken
- Beware of excuses. Reasons are the truth, excuses put you on the defensive. Give your reason, without apologies
- Appreciate the importance of the need and state that you have to say no because you do not want to let them down; you care enough to want to fully engage and commit
- Stick to your guns. Don’t take no for an answer in response to your no!
Other useful tactics:
- Negotiate. Particularly useful when you feel you don’t have the right to say no.
- Ask questions to understand the need. Use open questions: tell me, what, how, when…
- Say what you can do to help.
- State the repercussions. If I offer to do this then…
- Suggest an alternative solution. Offer to take a partial role. Find someone else to do it.
- Ask for time to think and get back to them. This is especially useful because it allows reflection
- Be prepared for non-acceptance. Set boundaries. Know how far you are willing to negotiate
- Pre-empt. From the start ‘I need to let you know…’, ‘can I stop you there’. It is important that the request does get too far.
Many of us are so rusty at saying no, we’ve forgotten what it feels like. It’s a transferable skill, so rehearse outside of work, then graduate to the professional ‘no’. The more you do it, the easier it will become.
"I work part time in a manager role. At this level we don’t get paid for overtime. I’ve been finding lately that I am effectively working full time hours on a part-time salary. What can I do about this?"
First up check the details of your contract and your staff policy and procedures guidance to ascertain if there is any small print that deals with this situation. You might very well find the answer and the protection you need in contractual form. If not here’s a practical alternative.
When I was in this situation myself, I put together a compromise proposal that went like this. I established the average over-time hours of a full-time manager over the course of a year. This was accessible from management information but it’s also possible to find out just by asking around. I then pro-rated the average over-time in proportion to my own reduced hours contract. Then I tackled my line manager.
My approach was not to protest about the extra hours, but to point out that as a manager I duly expected to work over-time. And I would expect my over-time to be fully proportional to that of an average full-time manager. So what I was seeking was some recognition for what had become ‘excessive’ overtime. In my case it worked; I got paid for the excessive hours and we looked at my job spec to see how we could take out some time to bring down my hours on an ongoing basis. Hope it works for you too!
“I am very unhappy in my current role. It is my first role since qualification and I do not enjoy the day-to-day work. I am beginning to feel that all the hard work in qualifying has been a waste of time. I feel trapped and don’t know what to do.”
Don’t panic. The ACCA is a superb business qualification that opens doors to an infinite number of opportunities in practice and industry. All you’ve discovered is that you are not happy in this role. Don’t write off accountancy just yet! And even if you’re tempted, remember it is a business qualification.
Right now may not be the ideal time to change jobs. Beware of making a knee-jerk career move. There’s plenty you can do within your current situation to optimise your career choices.
Take stock of your likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. Be specific. If you don’t like auditing, be precise about the aspects and then determine why. This will give you a personal blueprint to take an informed approach to career planning. Start to research roles that better align with your personal inclinations.
A quick tip on keeping you sane in your current role is to try reframing. Think of this as learning for your career ahead. What positives can you extract from your current situation? Look for ways you can turn passive into active. What are you discovering about yourself? How is this building you as a person? There are many ways you can reframe – it simply entails finding a different meaning in what you are encountering – so think laterally!
“I don’t seem to have any time for a personal life at the moment. What tips can you give me to better manage my time during this busy season?”
First up, I am assuming that you are referring to a limited period of time here. That is, a seasonal workload peak as opposed to a permanent state. Here are some tips to help you with a temporary increase in your workload. Bear in mind that a different approach would be recommended if this was a permanent situation.
There are three areas that you should consider:
- Planning. It is invaluable to take some time out from your technical responsibilities to work ‘on’ your job as opposed to ‘in’ your job. There is a school of thought that suggests that 10% of our time should be spent working on planning ‘how’ to do our jobs. 10% might seem a bit heavy at this time of year so I would suggest that any time at all that you use in this way will give you a good return on your time investment. Even if it is just 15 minutes a day, spend some time standing back, reminding yourself of the bigger picture and give some thought to what you are trying to achieve and the best way to achieve it.
- Goals. You will greatly benefit from having a real understanding of your priorities. Under time pressure it is vital to understand exactly what has to be achieved within the deadline and then focus completely on these priorities. Also consider what absolutely has to be performed by you. With everything else, firmly: eliminate, delegate, reschedule. This approach has added value when you break down your task into its smaller components and proceed to eliminate, delegate, reschedule. It will guard against the risk of seeing an assignment as a huge lump, and being seized by panic.
- Last but definitely not least, you need to commit to some leisure time. Hard as this may sound when you are working long hours to tight deadlines, you must do this for the sake of your health. At this time of year you may not find it possible to achieve a ‘balanced’ life and your personal time may not be at a level you would aspire to all year round – but you do need to take some time out. Even if you just commit 30 minutes a day ‘wind down’ time, doing nothing at all, this is helpful in combating stress and re-charging the batteries. If you can plan in some physical pursuit each day, all the better. Also aim to have at least one leisure activity to look forward to each week. Once you have decided, make a promise to yourself to honour these commitments. Cast them in stone. Treat them as you would a work deadline. Decide, commit then focus. Let nothing get in the way, and enjoy!