Accountants burned out amid never-ending stress
Many within the accountancy profession have suffered pandemic burnout as the Covid stresses have taken its toll. Lianne Weaver explains how practitioners can cope with the demands of the modern workplace.
As we emerge from the depths of another lockdown, you might notice that the stress that has built up throughout the pandemic is still lingering in your day to day life.
Many accountants have been struggling against the uphill battle of never-ending grants, furlough claims, and clients in despair during the treadmill of services caused by coronavirus.
The return to the office has created another level of stress for the profession, with many even considering throwing in the towel after such an exhausting 12 months.
In one recent example on Any Answers, AccountingWEB member Murphy1 said: “Is it just me or has anyone else had enough? I don’t know how much longer I can cope.”
Summing up the feelings of many burned out AccountingWEB readers, the small practice owner listed off grant advice and support, furlough claims, VAT reverse charge and Brexit as just some of the headaches they’ve endured of the past year. While they’re yearning to get back to a normal workload level, their clients seem to be getting “more and more demanding and impatient”.
Meanwhile, the looming MTD roll out on the horizon is testing other accountants’ stress levels. “I am planning my exit before too much longer – I know clients need to be looked after, but I don’t think I can do that,” added steve12321.
Stress and burnout are words that are regularly thrown around, but how much do we really understand their impact? More importantly, how can we manage our stress to avoid hitting burnout?
Burnout is defined by three key areas of symptoms:
1. Emotional exhaustion – when we feel we have ‘cared too much’.
2. Depersonalisation – when our capacity for empathy and caring dwindles.
3. Decreased accomplishments – when we feel that we are not contributing or being productive, ie ‘nothing I do matters’.
Burnout is different to stress and should not be used synonymously. Stress is a natural mental and physiological response to a real or perceived threat. Burnout is the condition created when we suffer prolonged exposure to stress.
There are many signs of burnout and we cannot assume that everyone will experience it in the same way, however some things to look out for are:
- Chronic fatigue
- Feeling hopeless
- Self medicating
In order for us to avoid burnout, it is essential we learn to manage our stress.
Stress and stressors
Stress is something which we have evolved to be very good at responding to. It prepares us to ‘fight or flight’ given the appearance (or our perceived appearance) of a stressor.
It is important to recognise the difference between stress and stressors – stress is our response to a stressor. For example, our ancestors would have seen a tiger as a stressor. Our need to fight or flight is the stress response.
Whenever we encounter a physical stressor it is usually short lived; if we are in physical danger we either survive or we don’t. It is therefore usually very clear when a stressor has passed and we can then complete our stress response.
Today’s stressors are a little more complex, and usually more likely to be emotional rather than physical. Emotional stressors can hang around for years, such as work issues, difficult relationships, money worries, and parenting problems. There is often no obvious sign that these stressors have passed, and we therefore stay in a state of chronic stress which has detrimental effects on our mental and physical health.
Stress in the modern workplace
So how do we cope with this stressful modern life?
We cannot always change the stressors, but we can learn to be better at forcing ourselves to complete the stress cycle as often as possible – even if we have to go back and face the stressor again.
Imagine you have had a hard day at work – a client has really pushed your buttons and your stress has been gradually building. Often, we go home, get angry, and stay in that stress state.
Instead, when you leave work try to notice that the stress is still there even if you are no longer facing the stressor. Choose to do something which has been proven to help complete the stress cycle:
1. Run (or exercise): Our preferred response to stress is usually flight, so if we choose to exercise not only do we get the endorphins but our brain takes it as a signal that we have run away from the stressor.
2. Talk: Talk to someone you trust and explain what’s caused you so much stress. Don’t talk in the hope of finding a solution, but as a process of getting it out of your body.
3. Cry: Most of us tend to stop ourselves crying as quickly as possible. We might perceive it as a sign of weakness, but there are huge evolutionary benefits in allowing ourselves to cry until we have nothing left. It helps to complete that stress cycle.
4. Hug: Whether a loved one, a pet, or even a cushion, hugging for 20 seconds or more produces oxytocin which lowers cortisol (the stress hormone).
5. Laugh: Something that gives you that huge belly laugh – put on your favourite funny film and let yourself laugh it out.
What you may notice is that if we do any of these activities fully, we tend to get to a stage where we do a big sigh of relief. This helps the brain realise that the stressor is gone.
Of course, it is important to state that if you feel you are already at burnout or that your stress has gone beyond you being able to resolve things yourself then there are fantastic resources and support networks out there. Please reach out to your GP, MIND or SANE, or find a good therapist to talk things through with.