Dear Nick: I feel like packing it all in and sailing into the sunset

30th Jul 2019
Speaker and coach #TalkingAnxiety
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Life can be lonely as a sole practitioner and these anxieties are exacerbated by unappreciative clients and long working hours.  

Speaker and mental health coach Nick Elston lends a helping hand to a stressed sole practitioner who wants to leave the profession.

The dilemma

Dear Nick: “I am a sole practitioner and have been for eight years. I am completely stressed, working seven days a week for, yes, reasonable money but for very unappreciative clients. I feel like packing it all in and sailing into the sunset and then finding a completely unstressful job that at the end of every day I can leave work at work and go home and forget. 

“I feel like a complete failure at the moment. I don't want to discuss with my family as I don't want anyone else worrying. I can't describe it but I feel like I am in a constant state of anxiety wondering what the day is going to bring and what is going to go wrong.  It means everything takes so much longer as I just cannot focus.  It is affecting my health I know and I am not sure how much more I can take.”

Nick replies

I’m really pleased you took the time – and no doubt courage – to write. Your story completely resonated with me, even as someone from outside the accounting profession. I have labelled myself an ‘unnatural entrepreneur’ after a whole career spent being the best second in command that I could be.

Self employment is tough, tiring, frustrating and anxiety generating; however, to most of the outside world, we are believed to be ‘living the dream’. That in itself compounds our stress and confusion with a massive dose of imposter syndrome, as we then start to question where we are going wrong.

I’d really love to know your ‘why’ for starting out on your own. Often it’s the first thing we lose sight of. For example, when I first went self-employed I topped up my income (of £0!) by working for a supermarket delivering groceries for 30+ hours a week.

My ‘why’ was to have more time at home and have more personal freedom. After spending a full week doing my thing, then 30+ hours for the supermarket, quite the opposite happened. I lost touch at home and was constantly working. Because I never had my pricing figured out I was earning hardly anything after everything was taken out.

I craved the ‘simple life’ of employment again. And if I’m honest, not one month goes by where I don’t want to press that big red eject button and shoot off back into a simple job. However, the element that I missed was this: I had lost control of my ‘why’ and didn’t take time to lay the foundations. I just hit the ground running… and running… and running.

I spent around a year working two or three jobs flat out but not reviewing my business. I worked under the (wrong) assumption of doing more and more and more. It actually had a negative impact on my mental health to the extent I quit everything and took a step back. It was only then that everything came together, and this would be my advice to you too.

  • Stop
  • Take a step back
  • Get to know your ‘why’ again
  • Question everything you are doing right now – does it need to be done?
  • The stuff that needs to be done – can it be outsourced?
  • Your customers – do you need to sack some of them?  Seriously.
  • Review your pricing structure to ensure it matches your worth – again be prepared to lose customers.
  • As for the way forward – where do you want to go?  What do you want to achieve?
  • Only when you have done all of this – GO!

Only you will know if what you are doing will make you happy. Maybe you haven’t even asked yourself if you are doing this because you want to, or is it something you have always done?

In terms of managing anxiety, my top tips for you would be:

  • Never assume: anxiety comes from the thought of doing something, not the doing it – try not to predict negative outcomes.
  • What do you love to do? Schedule recovery time – every day – to ensure you are being positively distracted from the business and your busy-ness.
  • Share your challenges: I appreciate you find it hard to talk to your family but I believe a trusted outlet would really help you right now – eg consider hiring a mentor, coach or a counsellor, even if it's temporarily, to get you through this period.

As a Country Music fan, I love the quote from a Gary Allen song called ‘Every storm runs out of rain’.

Sometimes, when we are going through these periods of life we lose hope, we lose inspiration and we feel that the ‘storm’ will never end. But it will end. Everything passes. And you will be stronger and more resilient for this experience.

I strongly recommend seeking professional medical advice or using resources such as Mental Health UK as an urgent resource if you feel that you need it.

Replies (47)

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By AndrewV12
30th Jul 2019 10:04

Relax, we all feel like chucking it in, its amazing what 3 letters can do to a profession M.T.D.

Thanks (6)
By Padam Walburn
30th Jul 2019 10:11

The writer could very well be describing me and my practice at the moment. And yes, I do think that MTD has played a big part in this.

Thanks (9)
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By tedbuck
30th Jul 2019 10:17

I can fully sympathise with the writer. Trying to cope with an accounting practice is bad enough but adding on the complete inability of HMRC to do things right or respond to letters (Busy with Brexit you know) the compliance burden of FRS 102, the continual hassle of GDPR and all the other rubbish which the Government thinks is necessary to raise more money in fines to throw away on daft projects. Not to mention MTD a multi million £ burden on the taxpayer in retraining and coping with a new system which delivers exactly the same information as the old one did. With MTD fot SA and CT to come I think sailing into the sunset is a jolly good answer.
But what a way to ruin a productive economy - strangle it with red tape and regulation - just like the EU although, by all accounts, HMG gold plate the rubbish anyway.
I didn't read that the ICO had fined itself for failing to comply with its own rules. Typical!
Sunset sailing is really looking good - now which country hasn't got MTD?

Thanks (11)
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By rich brewin
30th Jul 2019 10:19

Well said Nick. In trying their best for their clients (some of whom don't deserve such devotion), too many accountants end up having a negative impact on their own lives.

Everyone has a right to balanced and fair relationships. It's okay for an accountant to say "Stop! This isn't working for me", to put themselves and their own lives first, or at the very least on the same footings as the needs of their clients.

As a profession we need to get better at standing up for ourselves and our own priorities and goals. The right clients will understand.

Thanks (4)
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By gainsborough
30th Jul 2019 10:20

So true. You are definitely not alone and I think a lot of sole practitioners are feeling this way at the moment.

I think Nick's point about considering sacking some clients is spot on. It does tend to be the same few that cause the most stress and getting rid of them can really ease the burden if you can afford it financially.

Secondly, if you are earning reasonable money, then there should be no need to works seven days a week. The more you respond to emails at weekends, the more clients expect it. It is no surprise that stress and anxiety comes if you never have a chance to physically and mentally switch off.

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By johnjenkins
30th Jul 2019 10:23

Firstly you have to look at your level of take home pay. Up to £25k it's a doddle. £25k - £50k you have to put a bit more effort in to it. £50k and above you will get stress. So you find a level of income that suites your stress levels. Some people can take more stress than others. This is not restricted to the Accounting industry.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
Chris M
By mr. mischief
30th Jul 2019 18:09

I'm not sure I agree with that. I am on six figures and live a very stress-free life. I play golf or tennis pretty much every day in summer, about the most stressful thing in life is taking a bogey at the first hole.

I think it can be done. I regularly sack clients, in fact the last one was on Monday. As you will see from my MTD posts, I don't take any pratting around drivel from HMRC.

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Replying to mr. mischief:
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By johnjenkins
31st Jul 2019 08:55

Maybe you're the type of person that what other people call stress, you call normal working life.
I used to take everything in my stride now I pick and choose. I finish work at 15.30, have Fridays off and have regular holidays. It hasn't always been like that though. Most people (in any industry) have to work really hard to attain the level they want. Yes, with some it does come easy, but not many.

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By rmcouk
30th Jul 2019 10:32

I hope you are encouraged by the immediate, sympathetic support from colleagues. I don't know if you are a member of one of the Institutes but may be worth seeing if you can participate in a local discussion group and see if you can gain practical support in that way. It is always frustrating that we often worry about clients' affairs more than they do!

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By feelingthestrain
30th Jul 2019 10:35

I posted this back in October 2016 https://www.accountingweb.co.uk/community/blogs/feelingthestrain/depression

I am/have been quite a regular contributor to AccountingWeb over the years but on this subject, even now, am not comfortable saying "it's me!" hence the fact that my profile name isn't my regular name!

Last year I saw a counsellor week in week out for about a year.

He was great.

It became more of a work training session rather than anything else with me talking and talking and coming up with plans of what I needed to do and then the following week reporting back. He'd ask me the questions that I needed to be asked and every single week when I walked out of his door I felt lighter than when I went in.

It made no difference to him whether I made any changes or not but I felt accountable to myself and it made me rationalise things and start to change my approach to work and life in general.

Even now, if I were to feel under strain in, say, October, I can just give him a call and go and spend an hour stepping outside my life and analysing things.

Have I completed the "journey" yet, hell no, but in regard to the MTD aspect (which definitely was the jolt) I'm feeling there are benefits in the way we are working now which are allowing me to accept that:

1. I am the master of my destiny if I choose to be.

2. There is an escape if I want it and the first one is to learn to say "no" to people and remember that I can resign from a client anytime I choose to if it gets too much or they are expecting too much.

Another tip as well - when something goes well allow yourself to take a moment on your own and give yourself a little fist pump and scream a "yes!" inside yourself. Learn to feel the positives and dilute the negatives.

Thanks (4)
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By Mark Rob
30th Jul 2019 10:46

I totally sympathise with the guy, because I kind of feel the same. Since HMRC stopped access to their CT account/tax portal it feels every Feb/March when you have time to recharge the batteries, review client files, or just generally catch up there has been some new issue that needs consideration (RTI/Auto Enrolment/GDPR/MTD etc.). The job is hard enough itself never mind these added burdens.

It feels most of these changes are aimed at hitting the small practitioners. I think HMRC considers us cowboys at best, and rogues at worst. They are not in the real world, and have no idea the work that goes into getting returns submitted. When (not if) MTD is extended I am giving up. I would guess only 15% of my clients are using a computer. I am trying to move a few over, but again it is time needed.

Excellent advice from Nick regarding pricing, and binning a few clients. If you are good you will replace them, also do not sell yourself cheap when you take on any new clients.

Thanks (4)
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By mkowl
30th Jul 2019 10:51

Interesting points being raised and there are definitely times when you look to the future and a life without the constant updates on what we do. I would just like those that sit in Ivory Towers to experience a 12 month period in the real world - perhaps they would appreciate our concerns

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By Marlinman
30th Jul 2019 10:51

I work on my own from home with miminal overheads,using an accommodation address at the local business centre. I can make a good income and have a lot of leisure time keeping my turnover just below the vat registration threshold.
I don't want to get any bigger because I would have to take on employees and increase fees with all the hassle it entails. I left a partnership 15 years ago taking my best clients with me. It was tough at first but just a case of getting computer systems set up and working more efficiently so I could do everything singlehandedly. I can imagine it is tough starting from scratch with no clients and it would be far better building up a practice in your spare time while employed elsewhere and breaking off when you have enough clients.

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By Husbandofstinky
30th Jul 2019 11:15

I think many can empathise with this, and not just the accountancy profession either. Legislation and big brother is crippling many of the nations professionals out there, no matter what the industry.

For me dealing with this stress is all about management. (stating the obvious I know) I do still work considerably more hours than your average Joe. However it is still better than a few years back despite all the red tape in recent years.

The three points that made the difference were:

1 - Learn to say