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It was World Mental Health Day 2016 last week. DFID, my current client, has a strong record of support and engagement with the challenges being raised by mental health. In the contexts in which DFID works with trauma and humanitarian disasters, the affects on mental health can be as significant as the physical ones. In the corporate world mental health is a strange thing, in that we tend to treat it in a binary way; you are either well or ill. This is so different to how we treat physical health, that has a range of states (from severely ill to ‘feeling under the weather’). Also because mental health does not always have physical manifestations it has a sense of stigma (which is quite unjustified). We simply find it difficult to talk about.

As I’ve got older and my home and work life have become more pressured, I’ve come to realise that mental health is not a simply binary issue, it’s more up and down and analogue. I am generally very stable and have strong mental health, but I need to look after myself more. I need to have breaks, I need to consider more actively  how events make me feel, and how I might react to periods of pressure. In effect my mental health does vary during the year, during the month, during the day.

So how does this important issue relate to internal audit? I think internal audit is a unique profession within most organisations as it has a role to be objective and independent. IA has a role to challenge the organisation. This makes being an internal auditor or CAE prone to having difficult conversations. This can be stressful.

The biggest professional challenge I think young internal auditors face is to learn the ability to challenge without upsetting, to be direct without being offensive, to challenge without being conflictual. This is not a simple skill to learn, as one person’s direct comment is another’s overly strong challenge. So the ability to challenge within the capability of those being challenged to cope, requires not just the ability to deliver the challenge, but also to ‘read’ how this is being received.

As an example, in my current client my auditors are required to work together on overseas audits in fragile and conflict prone places of the world. This requires real talent and resilience from the team lead and team members. In my view it requires the teams to really look after each other, both in terms of work and living circumstances (as being away from home can be difficult and challenging just on its own). Also colleagues are, in the evenings, neither in work, nor at home, so a little bit of slack for colleagues to be suboptimal is required (we all get grumpy sometimes!).

The CAE needs to not only be able to do this on a one to one level as for an internal auditor, they need to be able to do this on an organisational level. So this ability to deliver challenge needs to be within the bounds of what the organisation’s management, governance and audit committee can cope with. A great way to test this is within the audit committee. In my view a good CAE engages the independent members and top executive attendees to the audit committee in a joint change agenda. This allows the committee to then be a place where a shared vision of organisational enhancement and reform is tested, evidenced (through management papers) and validated (through audit papers). It becomes a safe organisational reform forum.

One of the professional IA maturity points I look for in my team as they progress their careers in audit and counter fraud is the ability to deliver challenge, have difficult conversations, adapt to individuals’ responses and read the room. Some of the best places to practice these skills is at audit closeout meetings, report review meetings, and most especially the audit committee. Presenting to the audit committee is a key challenge in my view. The questions are normally incisive, to the point and challenging, and the ability to give answers that are truthful, point out real challenge, but keep an engaged management team is one delivery challenge that is key.

It’s been gratifying to see my auditors at all levels engage in this delivery of the challenge process. The ability to be highly socially skilled is a core audit skill. This is practiced first with each other in the department, then wider with clients, then in bigger, broader and more senior contexts. For the top talented auditors, the ability to recognise each other’s mental state, their level of exhaustion, pressure and general energy levels, is really important. A simple – are you alright? Take a few days off. Let me handle that meeting. These are so valued by me when I see my team do it. It shows an audit team that really works together. I hope that I read my audit team in the same way and provide that level of support to them too!

I also think a CAE has a role to provide the cover and support for their team to be able to deliver difficult challenge. It is also their role and responsibility to ensure their team recognises this is a powerful and privileged role of audit, and to make sure it is delivered in full support and cognisance of the effects on those upon whom it is used; in other words, used responsibly. For delivery of a message directly and straightforwardly is not, sadly, usual in modern corporates. We are now more used to avoiding conflict and challenge, or being passive in our critiques or concerns. I believe in being straightforward as a general principle as I think it is respectful of those to whom you are communicating and respects their ability to receive a message in a professional manner, if you are. Of course one needs to temper the message and the method of delivery for its audience, the sensitive, the weaker minded and the more junior in the organisation; but I was always taught to think through issues professionally and to respect client feedback, so perhaps I am used to both receiving and giving these messages over my professional career. Perhaps it is an auditor trait?

I have a  number of roles, both in my day job and in my roles on audit committees and boards as a member, where I need to apply this skill. Do I get it right all of the time? No. Do I try to? Of course, yes. The whole point of IA’s objectivity is to identify issues and problems that need to be tackled in a way that the current actors are either unable or unwilling to recognise and do. Then the point of independence is to be able to say these things and put them on the record such that they are then dealt with. It is this responsibility, as I see it, that makes being a CAE stressful.

In my view internal audit cannot avoid this challenge role, as it’s the one unique feature of IA. So internal audit needs to break some eggs to make an omelette. This means being cognisant of others is a key, and core, audit skill. It also makes managing our own mental health and those with whom we work a core and key part of our roles.

So how do you maintain your health, a healthy audit team and a healthy client?