ICAS Members Board Wellbeing Lead, Samantha Frost CA, shines a light on financial abuse and the need to invest in wellbeing
ICAS Members Board Wellbeing Lead and Think Wellbeing founder, Samantha Frost CA, explains the link between coercive control, mental health and workplace performance
Sometimes a career journey is one part opportunity and one part serendipity. For Samantha Frost CA, her route from Big Four to wellbeing consultant has been an organic, often surprising, journey that has allowed her to adapt her CA skills in unique ways.
Frost trained at KPMG in London, before moving to PwC in Sydney, working in risk and audit, followed by a spell in investment banking at Macquarie. But it was the birth of her second baby that prompted a career reassessment – Frost sought the more flexible work hours self-employment brings – and her move to the small consultancy, Think Consulting. She continued to work with her Australian corporate clients on moving back to the UK in 2018. But with the pandemic, the time seemed right to refocus once again. Reflecting her growing interest in mental health, she set up Think Wellbeing.
“I’d love to say it was a conscious decision, but it was more a range of things that took me down that path,” she says. “When the pandemic struck, I was concerned I wasn’t equipped to guide my children through what was happening, so I trained as a mental health first aider. Then an Australian colleague contacted me at the time and said she’d been told by the board that she needed to look at mental health and wellbeing in her company. She was struggling – she was unsure how to do that and how they would know if they were getting it right.”
Sensing both a gap in the market and that this was new territory for many, especially with wellbeing thrown into such sharp relief by the pandemic, Frost pivoted using both her CA skills and her passion for wellbeing. “Because I have an audit background I understand about frameworks and structures and how to put something tangible around a topic that can sound quite fluffy,” she notes.
That also prompted her to reach out to ICAS: “I had heard about the great work ICAS was doing during lockdown in the mental health and wellbeing space and wanted to get involved.” Now ICAS Wellbeing Lead and a Council member, Frost is focused on ensuring the programmes and resources are responsive and relevant for members and students alike.
For Frost, one aspect of wellbeing is also inextricably linked with finance, something which plays perfectly to her CA skills. “I would define wellbeing partly as your ability to withstand the challenges that life throws at you and to bounce back. Your finances are integral to that. You can have your health, you can be nailing it in your career and have a great personal relationship, but if your financial wellbeing is in a mess, that’s going to play on your mind, day and night,” she says. “We have to look at wellbeing holistically and if any one bit is out of kilter, it’s going to affect everything else.”
Finance is a pillar for an unusual speciality in her skillset. While setting up Think Wellbeing, Frost was approached to become an assessor for a company developing a financial abuse accreditation scheme. “They knew my audit background and my work in wellbeing, so it felt like a good fit,” she says.
Intrigued, she started training. Financial abuse, also known as coercive control, is where somebody uses money to control another person, whether by restricting access to a salary or their ability to work, providing a minimal budget to maintain a household or denying access to bank accounts or even bank statements.
“I had a misconception of what a victim of financial abuse looks like,” says Frost. “I initially thought perhaps it was somebody who wasn’t good with money and that it probably only applied to a small sector of society. What surprised me was this can happen in any relationship – between business partners, spouses, a girlfriend or boyfriend, or even between parent and child where a child assumes responsibility for an elderly parent’s estate. Anyone can be the victim of financial abuse, there’s no level of education or wealth indicators, and gender and age are irrelevant.”
The biggest challenge, she says, is the taboo that still exists. “There has been so much work done to break the stigma of talking about mental health and wellbeing throughout the pandemic,” she says, “but you still never hear anybody talking about financial abuse, because there is shame around it. People think, ‘I must be stupid to let this happen’, ‘It’s my fault because I’m not clever enough to deal with money’.”
Frost’s work with the accreditation scheme helps organisations to recognise the red flags, and to then support their own clients, some of whom may not even realise they are victims. “Sometimes financial abuse is covered up as being ‘careful with money’ when somebody is being controlled because they don’t have access to funds. But trust your gut instinct if something feels off. It can be hard to initiate a conversation, but try saying ‘When you tell me that, it makes me uncomfortable because of XYZ – how does that make you feel?’”
Frost notes the importance of “opening the door” in mental health and wellbeing. “You don’t have to go in and fix things, but it’s important someone knows that if they feel something is off and want to chat about it there’s someone there. With any form of abuse, people can close themselves off from others because they’re worried they’re going to spot it, and they don’t want to be questioned because it’s embarrassing. It can have huge ramifications on wellbeing if people don’t have access to the support they need. We need to work on normalising the conversation.”
Changing the conversation
It is that holistic conversation, in all its facets, Frost is particularly interested in. She notes the greater value placed on wellbeing post-pandemic and the growing recognition that it is both the ethical and the businesslike option. “Wellbeing is closely linked to engagement,” she says. “If your workforce is feeling good and engaged with what they’re doing, you’re going to see it in your bottom line.
“But although conversations around wellbeing are more granular now and less conceptual, it can still be a bandwagon that people jump on. We can all do the ‘bowl of fruit in the office’ things – but to be effective you have to work out what metrics to track so you know if you’re getting things right. That means working out what wellbeing means to your organisation and what it needs to look like.”
That awareness is something ICAS took on board as it leant into member wellbeing during the pandemic – and is continuing that commitment as we move into a world where dynamics have shifted. “We’re at the stage now where we need to go back and find out what members want from us in the wellbeing space post-pandemic – particularly around hybrid working,” notes Frost.
“For those who have done long hours in the office for years, it’s quite nice. But then you’ve got 20-year-olds starting out. At the Big Four, 90% of what you learn is by sitting next to your manager in a meeting and watching how they deal with a difficult situation. But if that older generation are at home now, who are the less experienced people supposed to learn from? Also, the lack of boundaries when you work at home is a real issue for everyone because there’s no real segregation between home and work. How do you switch off when you don’t have that commute to form a natural break in the day?”
Wellbeing resources and a futureproofing vision will only grow in importance, especially as organisations look to an upcoming workforce that is tearing up the rule book on corporate life. “One of my undergrad mentees recently told me, ‘I’m not going to go to a Big Four company because they won’t offer me any kind of work-life balance,’” says Frost. “That wasn’t even a thought in my head 20 years ago when I did my CA qualification. So, the big challenge – and opportunity – for the profession is that those coming into the workforce now are proactively seeking out companies that will offer them work-life balance to protect their own wellbeing”
For Frost, there is work to do to support the next generation of CAs and ongoing conversations to be had between businesses and their employees. Wellbeing is perhaps the most important investment a business can make in its workforce, and while the pandemic may have raised its profile, we have only just begun to understand what that means and the challenges we face. As Frost notes: ‘We all have to be cognisant that the impacts of the last two years are probably not all going to be felt for a while.”
As Frost would vouch, an investment in wellbeing now is likely to pay dividends in the long term.