Follow these strategies to avoid chronic stress and burnout for you and your accounting firm.
For accounting professionals, balancing a heavy workload, client expectations, and having a personal life can be a challenge.
The “standard” 40-hour workweek is rarely standard during the busy season or year-end close. And even outside of major deadlines, accountants often deal with difficult clients, pressure to lower fees, and ever-changing tax laws and accounting standards.
Chronic stress isn’t just an annoyance: It can have devastating long-term effects on your health. Unrelenting stress can lead to elevated blood pressure, anxiety disorders, and other physical health problems.
In fact, according to University Hospitals, healthcare costs for people with elevated stress levels are 46% higher than those for less-stressed workers.
When you find yourself feeling burnt-out and exhausted, try these 7 tips for managing stress.
1. Learn to Say No
Many accountants deal with stress because they have a hard time saying no to any request that comes their way: Work their coworkers don’t have time for, out-of-scope client requests, unnecessary meetings, serving on boards, etc.
This isn’t to say you should never attend a meeting, serve in the community, or help out a coworker or client in a jam. But the truth is, accountants say yes to many things they don’t want to do. As a result, they wind up feeling overwhelmed by their to-do list and frustrated by obligations, even though they’re the ones who said yes to them in the first place.
Andrea MacDonald, CPA and president of Pro Tax & Accounting, LLC, says no to clients who refuse to get on board with her firm’s processes. “It adds unnecessary stress to worry about missing a document because the client refuses to use our portal or follow some other process we have in place,” she says.
Start by identifying what’s important to you, then say no to the rest. This will clear your calendar, and free up physical and mental energy for saying yes to the exciting, meaningful (and profitable) stuff.
2. Make a List
Stress often comes from feeling like you don’t have the mental bandwidth to take on every task, assignment, and project floating around in your head. But as productivity guru David Allen, author of the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, suggests, “Your head is for having ideas, not holding them.”
Rather than wasting mental bandwidth storing information in your head, take 15 minutes to put all of your tasks and to-dos on paper (or in your workflow tool or project management system).
Once you’ve created your list, prioritize all of the tasks on it. You may find that some nagging tasks really aren’t all that important and can be put off until later, or skipped entirely.
If any of the tasks on your list seem overwhelming, try breaking them into smaller, “doable” steps that you can accomplish in the time you have available.
One of the most effective ways to accomplish more is to personally do less, also known as delegating.
Maybe you avoid delegating because you think it takes too long to train someone else. Maybe you believe nobody can do a certain task as well as you can. But most successful, high-achieving people have a team of assistants, staff members, consultants, vendors, and contractors to help them manage projects and handle everyday tasks.
Here’s how to get started.
- Think about what to give up. Don’t just focus on the mundane tasks, especially if you’re delegating to a less experienced staff member. Instead, try to delegate things that will help your staff accountant, administrative professional, or intern gain experience and feel empowered.
- Invest time in the early stages. Effective delegation requires some work on the front end. Provide detailed instructions and be specific on your expectations for the outcome. The more involved you are initially, the less involved you’ll need to be later on.
- Monitor progress. Set up check-ins to discuss progress and answer questions. For example, if you delegate a tax return that you expect to take 4 hours, let your team member know you’ll check in after two hours to see how they’re doing. This gives you a chance to provide more guidance without micromanaging.
Doing everything yourself might save time in the short term, but in the long run, it cripples your productivity. Invest in your future capacity and stress management by learning how to delegate.
4. Schedule Focus Hours
Do you want to increase your performance by 40%? Schedule focus time in your day. According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40% of your productive time.
Phone calls, texts, emails, instant messages, and other interruptions make it impossible for busy accountants to focus on deep work and get things done. That’s why it’s important to schedule uninterrupted time.
Block out an hour or two every day or establish a meeting-free day each week to focus on projects that require high-level thinking. Put your phone on airplane mode, close your office door—whatever it takes to ensure you’re not interrupted. Encourage other team members to do the same, so it becomes part of your company culture.
You’ll find you get a lot more done when your toughest tax returns, reconciliations, or firm projects have your full attention.
5. Identify Stressors…and Cut Them Out
Ask yourself honestly: What is causing you the most stress? What could potentially be leading you or your team toward burnout?
“Burnout is a huge problem in the industry,” says Kristen Keats, founder/CEO of Breakaway Bookkeeping + Advising. “It happens whenever people are passionate and caring. Sometimes they just do too much.”
Her advice? Set strong boundaries and make it clear that you are not available 24/7. Also, she says, charge appropriately for your services. Make sure, for instance, you’ve differentiated your pricing for compliance services versus higher-value advisory services.
“It makes it easier to not work 60 hours a week when you can earn what you want in less than 40 hours. By the way, I am a strong proponent of destroying the 40-hour workweek myth.”
Finally, get rid of difficult clients who are draining your mental health resources or who don’t value your service. “Life is way too short to work for anyone who is demeaning or doesn’t treat you fairly,” says Keats. “You have every reason to be picky about who you work with.”
6. Connect With Others
Another common stress reaction is skipping get-togethers with colleagues, friends, and family members. Yet having strong social support can actually improve your ability to manage stress. Instead of turning down social invitations, schedule an in-person or virtual meetup with a coworker, or get together with a loved one to talk about your day or problems you’re dealing with.
MacDonald has found connecting with other local accountants, tax professionals, and bookkeepers to be a great stress management technique.
“This is something I’ve only recently implemented,” she says. “It has been so helpful to hear from other pros that my issues aren’t unique and learn how other practitioners handle the issues I encounter. Opening up your own accounting or tax firm can be very lonely, so meeting other people who are similar in size and situation can bring a ton of insight and peace of mind.”
7. Make Time for Your Health
Do you lose sleep, skip workouts and grab fast food instead of cooking when you’re stressed out? You’re not alone.
A 2020 survey featured in Accounting Today found that 46.6% of accountants report working longer hours during the pandemic, and 38% say they’ve lost sleep due to work-related stress.
When your workload is overwhelming, deprioritizing nutrition, exercise, and sleep may seem like a sensible trade-off. But that strategy can backfire, sending you into an unhealthy cycle and making your stress levels soar.
The Food-Sleep Connection
According to Harvard Health, ongoing stress and the hormones it produces tend to push people toward overeating. When people don’t eat well, it’s tougher to stay energetic and cope with stress. And when we don’t cope well with stress, it tends to affect our sleep.
To avoid the downward cycle, set small healthy goals each day: Order a takeout salad instead of fast food, take a 15-minute walk in the middle of your workday, and turn off your phone and other screens for 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime to make falling asleep easier. You’ll feel better, be less stressed-out, and accomplish more during the time you have available.
A Note About Mindfulness
It might sound a little “woo-woo” to some, but making time for mindful activities has been shown to improve attention, decrease burnout, and improve sleep. Bottom line: It can have a real impact on your mental health and physical health.
When we talk about mindfulness, many people naturally think about meditation. But meditation is only one way to focus on being mindful. Other mindful activities include:
- Paying attention to sounds, sights, and smells while taking a walk outdoors
- Taking a few deep breaths while closing your eyes
- Standing up to stretch periodically throughout your workday
- Starting each day with 10 minutes of inspirational reading
MacDonald staves off stress by taking regular breaks throughout her workday. “During these breaks, I get up and walk around, making sure to leave my desk and office area,” she says. “Sometimes it’s just a quick break—I step outside and soak up some sunshine for 5 minutes.”
Your Strategic Plan for Accountant Stress
As a busy accounting professional, it can be a challenge to create a lifestyle that incorporates stress management techniques. But once you realize the negative impact stress has on your health, job satisfaction, and productivity, you’ll see how important it is to cultivate stress management strategies.
Select 2 or 3 stress management techniques and try them for a week, then reflect on how you feel. Getting a handle on your stress levels won’t only benefit you personally and professionally—it will also help you better serve your clients.
about the author
Janet Berry-Johnson, CPA, is a freelance writer with over a decade of experience working on both the tax and audit sides of an accounting firm. She’s passionate about helping people make sense of complicated tax and accounting topics. Her work has appeared in Business Insider, Forbes, and The New York Times, and on LendingTree, Credit Karma, and Discover, among others. You can learn more about her work at jberryjohnson.com.