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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.

18th May 2020
Co-founder Mazuma
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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

Replies (30)

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By raj1234
18th May 2020 14:36

Well that's bound to happen. Clients will be screaming for a better service and access to government schemes. On top of that, accountants will be dealing with the usual compliance deadlines. In industry, it will be worse. I wouldn't be surprised if finance headcounts have reduced, as a result of Covid, leaving existing finance staff to pick up more work.

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By hibees07
19th May 2020 10:07

and clients are expecting all of the additional work to be carried out free of charge!
Accountants have to put food on the table too.

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By Open all hours
18th May 2020 14:47

Worst part of all this are the number of fraudulent SEISS claims being made. Tell the client what you like but left to themselves some are claiming on the basis that their neighbour did so. Everything else I’m coping with very well but this is something else.

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By Trethi Teg
19th May 2020 09:40

I obviously have sympathy with those who have genuine mental health issues and do not wish to offend anyone.

However

For those who are just stressed by the fact that they have to do some extra work to do and some clients might be taking advantage (dont they normally take cash out of the till then?) then I would say that you are luckier than 95% of the world's population. I have more concern for those living on a dollar day and where they don't get paid if there's no work.

In practice Feb through to August are traditionally "quiet" months anyway, so stop complaining.

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By Diana Miller
19th May 2020 10:33

Slightly offended by your comments. Yes there are many many worse off but the reality is that, whilst still burnt out from Jan sole practitioners are having to juggle client needs that have gone through the roof, setting up a whole new way of working for the office, keeping track of workflow for my team who are working remotely and worrying about cash flow because clients cannot pay just yet. I am working long hours at present to meet all usual deadlines plus answer a larger volume of calls and doing all the furlough claims .
Add to this the stress of worrying about the virus itself and concerns regarding our 18 yr old daughter who has seen her A levels plans and potentially Uni plans all put on hold I feel accountants have a right to say they are stressed just now.

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By justme
19th May 2020 11:07

Totally with you on this! I read your response and thought "this could have been written by me!". Add to it a uni student whose graduation has been cancelled, and the new;y turned 4 year old who seemingly has to go back to school in two weeks time. And let's not forget, it's not just the accountants that are burnt out from January - our payroll staff are burnt out from getting year end done by 19th April, only for the furlough portal to open the very next day and keep us busy with complex calculations for every payroll that we do. Let's throw into it all the CPD points we've all gathered from the endless webinars and training sessions we've had to do and all the subsequent questions we're expected to know the answers to. And finally, and by no means least, the fact that most of the information we needed in order to do furlough calculations didn't actually become clear until the portal opened on 20th April, by which time you've already gone through 150 payrolls and realised they could be wrong because the guidance wasn't previously clear, or has been altered - as it has been so many times! Yes, I agree, we're lucky to be working and to be busy, seemingly not worrying about where the next pay cheque comes from. But do you know what - when you run your own business you ALWAYS worry about where the next pay cheque comes from. @Trethi Teg whilst I sypathise with those not working and not having an income, there are many other equally difficult times being felt by other people, accountants included. It doesn't necessarily revolve around money. Mental health is a serious issue and accountants are in the middle of it right now. Cut some slack.

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By justme
19th May 2020 11:10

And as for Feb to August being traditionally quiet months - I have no idea where you got that from but you're having a laugh now. I'm not sure there's ever a quiet month. There may be some sections of accountancy that have high seasons and low seasons, but there other sections, such as payroll and bookkeeping, that are constantly high. There is no such thing as a quiet period in accountancy. So no. Nobody is complaining. Just voicing our positions.

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By Ben Alligin
19th May 2020 10:06

At least our beloved Institutes have got our backs and appreciate the extra stress/work we are under/have to complete.

Hang on a minute, I have just received an email advising me that my Annual Return has not been filed, and I need to crack on with it immediately, unless I am very busy at the moment! However if I wish to extend the deadline, I have to contact them and give them a reason why I haven't managed to complete it yet.

Can they not join up the dots? It is reassuring to know that in times of global pandemics and Government bail out schemes (which change on a weekly basis), that pointless form filling is still an essential part of being a member of the ICAEW.

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By John Wheeley
19th May 2020 11:13

I resigned from ICAEW for this very reason about 20 years ago, there seems to be a complete lack of support for small practitioners.

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By johnjenkins
19th May 2020 10:13

This is not a UK problem it is world wide so no country has an advantage over another. Of course we will all get back to normal and all this will be forgotten, until, of course, some bright spark starts another more powerful virus. It might well be useful if we did have a couple of week "lockdown" every year. It might concentrate the mind on what we really have got.

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By gillsoffice
19th May 2020 10:14

I think it's been the emotional stress which has taken the biggest toll for me. I'm a sole practitioner working from home and most of my clients have been with me for almost 20 years, in some cases becoming very good friends. I'm very happy to do the hard work to help them (although I have often thought 'I'm getting too old for this' when yet another new scheme is launched) but inevitably I also get caught up in the trauma they are going through not knowing if the business they have built up may or may not survive. It is difficult to step back from those attachments, but a bit of exercise and fresh air does help clear the mind for a while.
I also need to have hope that things will return to some normality eventually. That's what keeps me positive. I would find it depressing to think that this will be forever and have to plan for that to be the case. Maybe I'll treat myself to a scented candle for the office though.

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By B.R.
19th May 2020 10:20

Use this lockdown as an opportunity. Think outside your box. Revisit your client list and I bet that many of your clients have climbed the ladder to A status, while many have shown their true worth or lack of worth. Realise that you can live comfortably with less money, and move greed in to the attic. Clear the attic. Take a one hour walk every day and don't look at the pavement, see the surroundings. Phone more, and use less email - make your phone the default. Eat better and even though your sleep is punctuated by heavy dreams, go to bed earlier and rise with freshness - buy a new mattress as well as a new office chair. Drink an extra litre of water a day. Chill....

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By justme
19th May 2020 11:15

Sure. As soon as I get 5 minutes.....

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By John Snowden
19th May 2020 10:29

I notice that in the first three comments already made there is a lot of 'should' and 'shouldn't'. And, in a way, in the article itself - there shouldn't be such uncertainty, and finding ways to defend against the resulting anxiety.

This is the mind's storytelling! Making 'sense' of things, because we are meaning-making beings. The opportunity lies in being ok with not knowing. A good deal of stress arises in contemplation of past or future as opposed to the immediate present. A good deal of executive coaching these days is around leading and decision making in a 'VUCA' environment - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous - and, boy, has VUCA ramped up!

Regarding relative suffering, it is all too easy to beat oneself or others up for complaining of stress - or possibly for actually enjoying the world slowing down a bit - when others are clearly in a much worse position. Care workers, prison officers, delivery drivers, refuse collectors and so many more in risky work, those with children in confined spaces, abusive relationships, alone... It is possible to hold in awareness all these things without denying the reality of one's own experience and attempting to suppress it. It is important to acknowledge overwhelm and 'let it out', not bottle it up. And to get to know one's own feelings - emotion and sensation - and distinguish them from (over)thinking. The objective being: to function effectively in an uncertain world, to maintain poise in both thought and mood.

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By peter__hall
19th May 2020 10:27

No offence anyone, but this is a first world problem. A bit of gratitude goes a long way here. I need to be reminded myself of this on a regular basis. Stay safe.

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By indomitable
19th May 2020 10:53

This article doesn't resonate with me at all
Yes we have had to do a bit more extra work (but we have charged for it to cover costs)
Yes we have lost a few clients because their businesses weren't eligible for support and they didn't have sufficient reserve.
But I count myself as one of the lucky ones. I and most are still here working and earning money and not in a high risk environment.

'Accountants are doing some really heavy lifting right now. '

No NHS staff are doing the heavy lifting.

'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 sure why this feels like 'competition day', having also been involved in competitive sport in my dim distant past I don't see the analogy. If you win you feel great, if you lose that's another matter. What this has got to do this the current pandemic situation I am not sure

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By justme
19th May 2020 11:18

You charged for the extra work? When clients are at their financially most vulnerable? Wow. We didn't. We're taking one on the chin for the clients and picking up the kudos in the future when we need it. Our clients all know we've been there for them. And they know we're riding this WITH them, not above them. We took a long term approach to this, not a short term profit based approach.

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By indomitable
19th May 2020 17:15

Wow? Yes we charged at cost like most professional firms and our clients realised there was extra work and were happy to pay. Not sure what sort of clients you have and whether they value what you do.

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By jamiea4f
19th May 2020 10:55

I'm trying to be as helpful as possible to clients but when someone Facebook messages you at 7.30 on a Saturday night with a picture of their SEISS claim and whinges about how they were expecting/hoping for more, like you can do anything about it anyway, and especially not at that time of day, the temptation to send back a short message is extremely great. As in many things I won't forget what people have been doing during this crisis and will act accordingly when the time is right....!

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By Angela Spencer
19th May 2020 15:48

Why on earth were you reading work messages at 7:30 on a Saturday night?
Literally, that way madness lies.
I know that working from home blurs the work/life boundary lines, and my husband comments to me frequently that my working days seem to have stretched to 9 or 10 hours on a regular basis, and there has been the odd 12 hour day inthe last couple of months ...
But once you have stopped working for the day or week you have to resist looking at work email or social media accounts completely. You owe that to yourself and your family.
Oh, and I'm afraid my clients are NEVER given personal email addresses, phone numbers or social media account names, no matter how friendly we become. It's just a rule I've always adhered to.

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By justme
19th May 2020 16:00

A fair point, but sometimes things aren't always that black and white. Every situation is different. I have a number of clients on my facebook friends list and it works well. It builds professional relationship with a personal edge to it. I maintained many client relationships this way and sometimes even won work this way too. Yes, the downside is personal messages out of hours, but then it becomes a lifestyle choice as to whether you answer it or not - and that's kind of the point that jamiea4f was making. Also, sometimes it's not possible to close your day or week off as clear cut as that. You work when the work demands it and you rest whenever you can. Sometimes, you're still filing tax returns at 11:45pm on 31st january. That's just the way it goes working for yourself. It's a tricky work life balance, but again, I think that's the point jamiea4f was really making.

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By Marlinman
19th May 2020 11:21

Work wise its not really affected me as I've been working remotely for the last 9 years. The furloughing claims were very simple and only took a few minutes each so I did them for free as a goodwill gesture.

The big effect on me is the cancelled overseas trips, plummeting value of my pensions and investments, the falling pound and further cut in interest rates which will all affect the amount of fun I can have in the future.

I suspect somebody is trying to get us all into debt so they can control us.

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By North East Accountant
19th May 2020 12:01

Yes, accountants are lucky to have loads of work etc etc but that doesn't detract from the headline of this article and the subject it covers.

It's a bit like my wife describing to me what it's like to be pregnant. I can understand the words but I don't have a clue what it's like to be pregnant.

Same with mental health issues.

If you have none you have no clue what's it's like and and if you have issues you do.

That's just the way life is and just like you wouldn't judge someone in a wheelchair for their disability, you shouldn't judge someone with mental health issues... just because you don't understand what it's like.

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By indomitable
19th May 2020 13:30

The article starts with

'Almost every single accountant has been busy, stressed and overwhelmed by the coronavirus workload, with many on the verge of burnout'

That is blatantly NOT true, so it is nothing to do with not understanding or judging people that suffer from mental health, it is about pointing out the truth and the facts.

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By justme
19th May 2020 15:55

I wouldn't say it's blatantly not true. Perhaps a small exaggeration. The point is the same though. Mental health issues and overworked scenarios are a real issue for MOST accountants at the moment. I think the responses to this thread are evidence of that. Perhaps you're not in that category. Ok - congratulations on holding yourself together. But it doesn't mean that almost every single accountant is NOT experiencing these issues either. This thread, alongside my own experiences, and in accordance with every single accountant I've spoken to in the last 6 weeks, and the accountants they've spoken to (accountants outsource services to us, so I've spoken to A LOT of accountants lately) suggests the lean is towards this article being more true than untrue.

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By rib
19th May 2020 12:24

Thanks for the timely article. Good to know you're not alone.

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By Trethi Teg
20th May 2020 07:10

Wow, didn't expect to prompt that response.

Still, without wishing to offend.

Snowflakes in May!

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By killer33
20th May 2020 10:39

I really could do with a holiday

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By Ian McTernan CTA
20th May 2020 11:42

Almost every single accountant has been busy, stressed and overwhelmed

Nope. Busy, yes. Stressed, nope. Overwhelmed- definitely not.

Busiest time was organising the PAYE furlough scheme claims.

Spent days on the phone to clients, talking through things with them and making sure they knew what they could claim for and when, and earning a lot of good karma which will result in new clients down the road.

Not one additional fee charged (fees might go up a bit next year when things have settled down). The last thing clients need right now is a big bill from their accountants- you're basically telling them you don't really care. If you're a practice employing people then your costs are pretty fixed (being the employee's salary which you pay anyway) and if you're billing clients for the extra work now, don't be surprised when they ask for a discount on your annual accounts fee for the three months where there is no income!

What goes around comes around. But then I've always had a good work life balance- I'll never be rich but I can afford most things I want and can get out to play golf during the week. I haven't made the mistake of many who tried to get as many clients and fees as possible and now find themselves 'overwhelmed'.

Use this opportunity to step back and ask yourself 'what do I really want from life'. If it's stress, anxiety, being overwhelmed and an early grave then carry on along the path of 'must bill everything and treat clients like a cash machine'.

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By rockallj
20th May 2020 16:40

Well bully for you lot on here who think this has been just fine and billed for the work, all smug about it.

For the vast majority of the comments and the OP themselves, I think they have it spot on.
I have a very, full-on busy work-life anyway, but it has been 14+ hour-days for weeks now. There is no respite, no holiday to be able to have and work is now always in the next room.

And no, so far there has been no direct or extra charge to clients for the work done.

And yes, I'm missing speaking to clients, visiting my family and friends, having a social life, being able to have a break once in a while. And if the few of you think "tough luck" or otherwise, well my response isn't repeatable.

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