Covid-19 fatigue hits accountants' mental health
Almost every single accountant has been busy, stressed and overwhelmed by the coronavirus workload, with many on the verge of burnout. To mark Mental Health Awareness week, Lucy Cohen explains how accountants can cope with corona fatigue and even get their spark back.
How are you? No really, how are you? Now that the initial scramble and wave of activity has passed, how are you feeling?
We’re still in lockdown and accountants across the UK are adjusting to a new way of working. Even for those firms that have always been cloud-based and had work-from-home set ups, the world has shifted.
To be entirely honest with you, in the last week or so I have struggled. It’s been hard for me to shift my focus away from the plans we had for the year, on to support and survival. What seemed like a short term situation is increasingly looking like a long haul.
I’m missing seeing my friends and colleagues face to face rather than in 2D over a screen. I’m missing talking about anything other than coronavirus. I’m sort of grieving for the plans that I won’t get to execute (as well as for my honeymoon that got cancelled because of Covid).
I had planned to write this piece discussing the changes we can see after last Sunday’s announcement from the PM. I’d hoped for some clarity in what the future might look like, both for my business and for my clients. And yet once again, all we are left with is uncertainty.
How uncertainty affects mental health
So what can we do when the world remains so uncertain? It’s still certainly the case that accountants are very much required during this time. Almost every single accountant I have spoken to has been busy, stressed and overwhelmed.
Our clients, especially those in small businesses, are leaning heavily on us for support. We have to be strong for them. We have to be strong for our staff. All that output of strength takes its toll. Accountants are doing some really heavy lifting right now.
To take it back to my powerlifting days, this feels like competition day. You only do nine maximum effort lifts over the course of a few hours - but it takes a week to recover afterwards. Not just because of the physical effort, but also the psychological one. There was always a huge adrenaline dump after a competition which can give people the post-competition blues, combined with physical exhaustion that was quite the thing to overcome.
The current situation feels like the after-effects of the Commonwealth Powerlifting Championships to me. I returned from Canada exhausted, bruised, jetlagged and unsure what day or time it was. But unlike in 2015 when I could have a good sleep and eat my bodyweight in carbohydrates to get over it, there’s no rest and recovery for accountants during lockdown. We are just being thrown into the next set of issues to solve for ourselves and our clients. And many of us are on the verge of burnout.
How are we supposed to cope with this? None of us envisaged this when we set up. What do we do?
Coping in a post-Covid-19 world
In previous articles, I’ve talked about ways to maximise efficiency during this period. I’ve also covered how to thrive for the future post-Covid-19 world.
But as time has gone on and the lockdown has been extended for most of the UK, maybe we need to look at things a little differently for the sake of our mental health.
So for this article, I’m just going to look at how to cope with the corona fatigue that I see setting in for so many accountants, and how to flip the mindset to a more appropriate framing of the situation.
For more on the mental health strain the coronavirus has put on accountants, listen to this recent AccountingWEB podcast featuring our resident Agony Uncle Nick Elston.
Step one: Acceptance
Let’s just say that this is the world now. This is how we’ll be working forever. If we shift our mindset to accept the current situation as a permanent fixture then we stop saying things like “when this over” or “getting back to normal”.
For now, we have to act as if this is the permanent state of affairs, or our mental health will suffer. If we constantly tell our brains that “things will be better when…” we are never truly accepting and dealing with the current state of play. That in turn will lead to a constant state of dissatisfaction and feeling of unrest. So it’s time to flip that mindset to something more useful.
Step two: Change
If this is how the world will be forever, what will you change? Potentially you’ve realised that some of your clients are not the sort of people you want to work with anymore. Perhaps you’ll get rid of that office lease. It’s possible that you’ll ditch the car altogether in the future. Think about what your life might look like assuming that this is the permanent state for years to come, and make adjustments that will improve it.
There is no change too big or too small here. Maybe move your home working desk to a window with a nicer view or a room with more natural light. Why not upgrade your WFH set up to include multiple screens and a screen stand to make your life a little easier? Splash out on that chair with good lumbar support.
I’ve treated myself to some fancy room fragrances just to make my home office feel a little more deluxe. What you do isn’t as important as the message that you are sending to yourself that this isn’t a transient phase and to “make do” with a difficult and uncomfortable working environment.
Step three: Plan
In this new world, what might your goals and dreams look like? I think it’s fair to say that most people have really taken stock of their situations and have evaluated what is really important to them.
Whatever your ambitions, write them down and do some good old fashioned business planning, complete with timescales and deadlines. Writing down your vision makes it much more likely to happen - we all know that. But writing down this new vision in the new world makes it tangible and real. As soon as you start achieving some of your new goals, you’ll see an improvement in your mental health.
I’ve found the re-planning side of things the most challenging part of this. It’s been harder than I thought it would be for me to let go of the business plan we approved in the February board meeting and to write an entirely new one.
However, I noticed that I also found it freeing. There’s a certain power to saying “that is no longer possible” and to come up with something new. For me, it wasn’t so much about being able to pivot, but more about actually thinking again about how we would operate if this continues forever.
What did we change? Everything apart from our very long term end goal. That remained the same, but the way we’re going to get to it has completely shifted. We re-worked everything from marketing, through to office location (or future lack of) and recruitment strategies. Many of the models we have used over the past 14 years have completely disappeared for us. And although it’s a little bit scary, it felt really good to take ownership of it.
Since doing the three steps I mentioned above, I’ve seen a real improvement in my mental health. I’m actually a little bit excited about how we might achieve our plans rather than fearing how on earth we were going to do it. I’ve got a bit of my spark back and it feels zingy and enjoyable again.
Increasingly I’m learning that regardless of the external situation, many of the same stressors will always exist - deadlines, demanding clients, staffing issues, cashflow. We can't choose those. But we can choose how to respond to them and how to frame the situation. That’s where your power is now