Chris Good CA shares details of his mental health recovery
At one point, Chris Good CA’s mental health deteriorated so badly he felt forced to quit the profession. But after six months on the shop floor, he returned to accounting, rebuilt his confidence and discovered a new willingness to open up. The Geoactive Senior Accountant and ICAS EDI Committee member tells Cherry Casey how therapy, work and sleep turned his life around
From a young age, Chris Good, Senior Accountant at software company Geoactive, was exposed to the life of a CA. “It’s in the blood,” he says. “My dad’s a member of ICAS and so is my uncle, and throughout my childhood I could see they enjoyed their career and were afforded a lot of opportunities because of their CA qualification.” Variety and opportunity also appealed to Chris, who had plans to one day work overseas, and so after graduating from the University of Aberdeen with an accountancy degree in 1999, he trained for his ICAS qualification with PwC.
The combination of work and study struck just the right balance, says Chris: “I enjoyed the fact that even though I was young and inexperienced I was put out into real-life businesses, not sitting in the classroom.” The work was hard, he adds, but the training and lectures were top quality. In hindsight, however, it was during this period that he first began to feel out of his depth, exhibiting signs of imposter syndrome.
“I was surrounded by confident, outgoing, talented people, and I felt the complete opposite, suffering quite badly at the time with low confidence, low self-esteem and anxiety,” he says. During an induction week his group were asked to engage in role play and deliver presentations. “I’ve never felt so much out of my comfort zone,” he says, “like I wasn’t good enough to be there.”
While this sense of inadequacy continued internally, his career path suggested otherwise. After qualifying as a CA, in 2002, Chris worked as a senior accountant and senior finance manager in various public-sector roles, before moving into the oil industry in 2011, as Financial Controller at EPC Offshore. Following EPC’s sale, he joined SUBC Engineering in 2014, again in the role of Financial Controller. But a downturn in the sector and a wave of redundancies, including Chris’, saw him move with his family to London “where there were more opportunities”. One of which soon followed: a job as Financial Accountant at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which progressed to Financial Controller after just four months.
But while his career was going from strength to strength, Chris’ mental health was deteriorating. “On the face of it everything was great. I was getting positive feedback, my boss at DCMS was a really good person to work for and while he was demanding of staff he thought well of me,” says Chris. “But it was what was going on internally that was a problem, which is hard for anyone to understand.”
The move to London with his young family was “a stressful time”, says Chris, compounded by physical ill health including chronic migraines, ulcerative colitis (an inflammatory bowel disease with which Chris was diagnosed in 2000) and hospitalisation with the flu. All of which contributed to extremely high levels of anxiety and depression and insomnia; at one point, says Chris, his insomnia was so severe that he would spend entire nights awake, before embarking on the 90-minute commute and working a full day. “Despite not sleeping, the extreme levels of anxiety kept me going,” he says. “I was exhausted but experiencing an abundance of nervous energy at the same time – tired but wired.”
Time to rebuild
The situation became untenable, with Chris’ mental ill health rendering him unable to fully function. And while DCMS “did everything they could to support me, I wasn’t well enough to work at that point.” Chris decided to leave his job and would not return to his career as a CA for more than a year. Due to the severe pressures on NHS mental health services, Chris was unable to access help quickly. “My GP said that I was at crisis point,” he says. “Moved by the severity of my symptoms, and the fact that my wife and I had just moved to the area with our young children and had no local support network, she tried to get urgent access to help. But it didn’t work out like that.”
Fortunately, however, a family friend recommended psychiatrist Dr Stephen Pereira and Chris began private treatment in 2018. By this point, he firmly believed his career was the cause of his problems; he felt he simply could not cope with the pressure and demands that came with the job. When he first met Pereira, Chris told him: “If every time you entered a horse into a race it became injured or was struggling, you would take it away and give it a different life,” he says, speaking analogously of his accountancy career. “You would retire it from racing.”
But Dr Pereira asked him to try a different perspective: what if the horse has an underlying injury or illness that had never been treated properly? “Dr Pereira was used to working with high-performing people in professional jobs,” says Chris – previous clients include former Lloyds CEO, António Horta-Osório, and newsreader, Tom Bradby, both of whom had also struggled with debilitating insomnia – and so, for the first time, Chris received “advice that was really tailored” to him as someone trying to return to a professional career. The NHS psychiatrists who treated him earlier in his career barely touched on the area of work, and seemed inexperienced in treating patients in high-pressure jobs. Together, Pereira and Chris came up with a detailed recovery plan, one stage of which involved Chris taking on a more physical role in order to “tire the body: heal the mind”.
Towards the end of the year, following a few months without working, as advised by Pereira, Chris took on a low-paid role replenishing stock on the John Lewis shop floor, a job he held for six months. “Just slowing everything down and doing something closer to home – my long commute was replaced by a 20-minute cycle ride – was really good,” he says. “Though I wasn’t using my qualification or my training, there were a lot of good people working there. Although in many ways I still felt at rock bottom, I felt acceptance there, that I could relax and be myself, which was an important ingredient in my recovery. Being around so many people every day was a big step forward from being at home for several months, and it allowed me to rebuild my confidence away from the pressures of my accounting career. I was on my feet all the time so it met the physically demanding objective set by Pereira, which helped with the insomnia. While the work was simple and pretty repetitive, doing these small tasks allowed me to rebuild my confidence from close to zero. And it wasn’t long before the managers started to give me additional responsibilities.”
While some may baulk at the idea of taking on such a basic role almost 20 years into a professional career, “that wasn’t my concern,” says Chris. “I was focused on rebuilding. So while that experience wasn’t easy, I actually consider it to be a real turning point in my life. After around four months at John Lewis my confidence had recovered significantly and I started to feel frustrated at the lack of challenge, which was a sign I was on the road to recovery.”
Another turning point in Chris’ life was when he started receiving therapy from a wellbeing specialist. “I have tried many different types of therapies in the past, including CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy] for anxiety and depression, hypnotherapy, psychotherapy and EFT [emotionally focused therapy], and while they did help at times, the benefits were often short lived and my problems recurred. But the work I have done with my current therapist has gone much deeper – it has been transformational. The work we do is centred on lifestyle and mindfulness, understanding myself and learning relaxation and coping strategies that work for me. As a result of our work together I now have a resilience, clarity and self-confidence which I never had before. And this has benefited me in all areas of my life, not just in my career.”
A firm future
By spring 2019, Chris was well enough to return to the profession. After a short role at a small accounting firm outside London, he and his family moved back to Aberdeen, where three years as Finance Manager at an SME in the oil industry followed. Taking roles at smaller companies was a purposeful move, says Chris, as he felt better able to manage his mental health.
As head of a small finance team he reported to the MD, “rather than to a finance person. So although I was learning a lot – including travelling to Saudi Arabia to set up the finance side of a new subsidiary – I wasn’t working alongside more experienced finance colleagues, so I wasn’t growing from that perspective.” Despite this, his confidence improved to the point where he set out to find a second-in-command role in a bigger finance team, which led him to “subsurface interpretation” software company, Geoactive.
“There’s a culture of support around mental health at Geoactive,” he says. “We’ve got three mental-health first aiders, one of whom is me.” Chris has struggled to talk openly about the subject in the past, with many close friends still being unaware of the full extent of his history. But one of his aims now is “to open up to others”, in part to help break down the taboo around mental health.
“Once, when I was off long term, my manager at the time said, ‘Don’t worry, nobody knows why you’ve been off so no one will say anything to you.’ That actually makes you feel worse, like you’ve done something wrong and have something to hide.” he says.
Chris recently joined the EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) Committee at ICAS, drawing on his experience to offer insight into creating a more supportive profession. The “ultimate goal”, he says, would be if, as a society, we felt as comfortable reporting a mental-health condition as we do a physical one. “There’s still a huge disparity between the two,” he says, particularly in SMEs, which often lack the resources to implement supportive schemes.
Reflecting on the impact of his mental health on his two-decade-long career, Chris feels most keenly “a lot of lost opportunities”, such as “shying away from leadership roles” through fear that he could not cope with the pressure. Looking ahead, though, he not only feels optimistic that he can progress along the career path he knows he is capable of, but for the first time truly sees his CA qualification as an enabler. “I used to see my qualification almost as the cause of my problems because with it came a lot of expectation and responsibility,” he says. “Actually, what I’ve realised along my journey of recovery is the enormous value of the qualification. Even though I’ve been off, or even chosen to leave work, with very challenging health situations, on every occasion I’ve been able to find a good job very quickly after recovering. Without the CA qualification I’m pretty sure it would not have been so easy.”
Having a good relationship with a recruiter who knows you have a track record of performing well has helped hugely, while taking advantage of opportunities such as the ICAS mentoring scheme is also a step Chris would advise any CA to consider. “I was mentored initially by Andrew Lowden CA and then by Clive Bellingham CA, current President of ICAS,” he says. “The mentoring from Clive continues to this day and has been incredible because he’s a very well-connected and experienced person with great insights.”
For those going through similar mental-health difficulties, Chris says “speaking up early is key. If I look back to the times I’ve struggled, I probably spoke out too late or not at all, by which point early interventions couldn’t be made.” Lastly, he adds, “Never give up. I’m testament that things can turn around. It takes a lot of work and perseverance, but it is definitely possible and definitely worth it. I must also give a special mention to my long-suffering wife, Jelena, without whose support and strength the outcome could have been very different.”
Visit the ICAS wellbeing hub for more resources