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Mental health program aims to save the lives and livelihoods of SMB owners

A recent study commissioned by the Federal Department of Industry, Science, Energy, and Resources, reports that nearly 1 in 3 SME owners had experienced stress, depression, or anxiety in the past 12 months.

Deakin Business School’s Counting on U program is providing free training in mental health first aid for business advisers to small business. 

Since COVID dramatically changed the business landscape, small business has put up the good fight to adapt and survive in these challenging times. For some, the strain has been too much and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

Mental illness is the single biggest cause of disability in Australia and small business owners are so busy and isolated, their feelings of distress, anxiety and overwhelm are not always visible. Trusted advisers, including accounting and finance professionals, can see changes in their clients’ behaviours and can, with the right skills, be instrumental in providing critical, timely support to small business owners.

This realisation seeded the creation of ‘Counting on U’, a Deakin Business School training and research program that has been designed for financial advisers who support small businesses. Professors George Tanewski and Andrew Noblet from Deakin Business School, in collaboration with a team of Deakin researchers and business finance professionals, created Counting on U.


“Through regular contact with both accounting bodies and financial planners, we were hearing about members who felt nervous about having conversations with clients who they suspected were experiencing mental health issues,” says Noblet. “They didn’t want to make matters worse and weren’t sure where to direct their clients to seek help.”

Previous research had shown that financial hardship often went hand-in-hand with mental health problems, Noblet says, and the pandemic has exacerbated this.

With most accountants shifting from a focus on compliance to providing more holistic business advice, business owners are increasingly sharing more than just their accounts, says Tanewski. “Accountants are high-trust advisers with client relationships often lasting many years. This brings them into new territory.”

To develop a training program that integrates mental health first aid into the everyday practices of finance professionals, Noblet and Tanewski worked with Chartered Accountants ANZ, CPA Australia, IPA, as well as Beyond Blue, WorkSafe and Mental Health First Aid Australia. Deakin Business is working closely with Mentally Well Workplaces to deliver the training program that combines Relationship Building Training and Mental Health First Aid.

“Small business needs all the support we can give at this time of immense change, challenges and COVID. Hence, we encourage all trusted advisers to small business to learn more about supporting small business owners with skills that can help them navigate their financial stress and anxiety. And it is free,” says COSBOA interim-Chief Executive Officer Alexi Boyd.

“COSBOA is on the steering committee for Counting on U precisely because we see the value this brings to small business owners in crisis and the support it provides to finance professionals, who themselves are going through a tough time which is not yet over.”



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