Dear Nick: 'Is anyone else suffering from coronavirus burnout yet?'

The strain of helping clients around the clock has taken its toll on accountants during the coronavirus pandemic. AccountingWEB’s resident agony uncle helps an accountant who is on the brink of burning out.

7th Apr 2020
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The dilemma: We put self assessment season to bed at the end of January and breathed a sigh of relief, but now we’re faced with the Chancellor who has a really tough job drip-feeding policies to quite frankly desperate people who've seen their livelihoods disappear overnight.

I've personally had a steady stream of emails and phone calls asking what this means for them and how they can make ends meet in the short term. It’s been a heartbreaking week: nice people with viable businesses shutting the doors, not qualifying for any grants because they are not in the correct sector when the business next door is eligible for £25,000 because they are retail. They don't know if they will ever open up again.

Then to cap it all I've had the "what can I claim" brigade who are still earning but at reduced levels. A handful of these clients have made my blood boil, asking what can I make out of this crisis. I bet they stockpiled all the toilet rolls, too… Is anyone else feeling burned out?

The response

Nick Replies: You're not only dealing with your own challenges and fears during the coronavirus outbreak but as an accountant, you are also shouldering the fears and demands of your clients.

With a groundswell terror filling your clients’ lives, coupled with money and taxation being a trigger for them at the best of times, you are now in a position of getting it ‘both barrels’.

Our old issues of MTD, Brexit and the recent busy period seem rather pale in comparison. You fill up your diaries with your work and family commitments, but where do you feature in your own life?

The reasons I reached the point burnout and breakdown were two-fold:

  • Masks: I was afraid of showing how I felt, who I was and how terrified and frustrated I was.
  • Recovery: I did not schedule any time to recharge, relax or even how that worked for me.

So, now, more than ever, accountants need to protect themselves. That old aeroplane adage of putting your oxygen mask on first so you can be stronger to help others applies more than ever right now.

But, undoubtedly, you are in the unenviable position right now with clients expecting you to know how to sort the claim or decipher the latest guidance the Chancellor has announced – as soon as it is announced.

They have unreasonable expectations, so manage their expectations and tell the truth about how you are feeling, how you are coping, and the timeline as you see it in terms of their question.

We don’t know how long this is going to last for or how this is going to play out – so don’t be afraid of saying ‘I don’t know’. Don’t fall into the trap of allowing them or yourself to assume an outcome to anything that is going on right now.

(Hear Nick Elston talk about burnout culture, anxiety and helping clients through a crisis in the latest episode of the No Accounting for Taste podcast)

It’s also important that you set boundaries. Allow time to disconnect, to recharge your batteries, however you do that, and ensure you get the space you need so that you can go again strong tomorrow. For example, give your clients a time window of when they can and cannot reach you.

If you are an introvert (recharge in your own company), you should ring-fence some time to yourself. If you are an extrovert (recharge in the company of others), immerse yourself in conversations with family, friends and social interactions. You can only run for so long before you stop.

I’ve put strategies in place to build my resilience and maintain my energy to be stronger and in turn be stronger for my family, friends and clients. But I burned out very quickly after lockdown. My anxiety and obsessive-compulsive traits were all triggered. But I have now gone from survival mode to evolution mode. That reframe and shift of focus has given me extra resilience, focus and determination.

Everyone is either in survival mode, where they’re working out how the business can survive, the bills can be paid, clients can be kept or they’re in evolution mode – working out a new way to do business, a new way to sell and retain clients, creating a new reality.

The sooner you can get from survival to evolution the better. When you are in evolution mode you’ll start to get the excitement back for a better time and future.

Remember: ‘every storm runs out of rain’. You may not see it right now, but if we can come through this – and we will – we can be smarter, stronger and even healthier for the experience.

Keep on keeping on – but go easy on yourselves too.

If you are struggling right now, you are not alone. You can drop Nick a message at www.nickelston.com or www.forgingpeople.com. No upsell, no agenda, no rules – just someone to talk to.

Nick Elston responded to the Any Answers question: ‘Are you suffering from coronavirus burnout yet?

Replies (43)

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By Sanjeev Nanda
07th Apr 2020 09:34

Nick, I felt this article on a spiritual level! More money, more problems? It's even worrisome if it's not your own (speaking on behalf of the entire financial community as of this moment). With so many legislation's and rules coming into effect for the last few weeks, a large chunk of the industry is getting stretched thinly. Thank you for your sound advice! Hope to read more like these in the coming weeks ahead.
~Sanjeev Nanda

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Replying to Sanjeev Nanda:
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By Sanjeev Nanda
08th Apr 2020 10:06

Sanjeev Nanda wrote:

Nick, I felt this article on a spiritual level! More money, more problems? It's even worrisome if it's not your own (speaking on behalf of the entire financial community as of this moment). With so many legislation's and rules coming into effect for the last few weeks, a large chunk of the industry is getting stretched thinly. Thank you for your sound advice! Hope to read more like these in the coming weeks ahead.
~Sanjeev Nanda


Just letting you know that I've shared this article on my Whatsapp group to hilarious responses. It seems that there is a certain undercurrent of burnout and frustration going on within the community. I guess this is only the bargaining phase of grief that is going on. Nevertheless, good job on the article - it has managed to evoke emotions from so many people!
~Sanjeev Nanda
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Replying to Sanjeev Nanda:
nick_elston
By Nick Elston
08th Apr 2020 10:13

Thank you so much Sanjeev!

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By hannahaston
07th Apr 2020 09:35

Yes and I’m 6 months pregnant and trying to deal with working from home now whilst home schooling!! Have around 200 clients, phone rings constantly, email pinging every 10 minutes. Very stressful. Luckily I have a fabulous colleague who is so supportive.

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By Casterbridge Hardy LLP
07th Apr 2020 09:45

A most intuitive piece. Certainly the current hysterical crisis has brought out the best and worst in clients. The best offering to bring me essential supplies (I am in a twelve week quarantine). The worst being a client who faced financial destruction when an enquiry began. I saved two businesses (one guest house and one cafe) and the home, obtained a zero penalty on V AT and an almost unheard of 7.5% penalty on direct tax after the most brutal campaign in my 55 year history. Now that we have the excuse of Covid-19 I have been told to foxtrot oscar for the fees as they cannot be funded (and pressing for payment in court will now be an extraordinarily long process). I doubt that I will be alone in my experiences.

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By 0098087
07th Apr 2020 09:45

For the first time ever I had to send out an email yesterday asking for people not to phone as we couldn't cope with the number and only to email. We sent out an email two weeks ago explaining how it would all work but they still ask and ask and ask. Why isn't the portal open? Where's my money..and then the best one..you send them an email telling them their VAT is due 31 March 2021, underlined and then they phone..oh no..are we late..

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By johnjenkins
07th Apr 2020 09:46

Whilst I fully understand the problems that the business world is going through at the moment, my thoughts are with the front line workers and those of the families that have had loved ones die over this terrible virus. No amount of money can substitute what they are going through.
I'm pretty sure that the treasury will do more to help business get through this unprecedented time.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
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By Whitnalls44
07th Apr 2020 09:55

Absolutely there are more important things and more important people than us accountants

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Replying to johnjenkins:
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By AnnAccountant
08th Apr 2020 15:53

Yes, my thoughts with them as well.

But our actions still need to take place and in line with helping the group of people who we are paid (usually!) to help.

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Replying to AnnAccountant:
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By johnjenkins
09th Apr 2020 09:20

There's a big difference in being on the front line saving lives and being on the front line saving business. Now as I see it the Government doesn't want to see business go down the pan so the generality of it is that there will be enough money to save said business. The way in which that money is distributed is awkward but will fine tune. At the moment you have UC, grants (in different guises) and bank loans. Government is making money available for charities. I personally don't think that money is going to be too much of an issue as Government has said "whatever it takes". So yes we have to help, but let's do it constructively not emotionally. We've got this lockdown until the end of April, then all being well a slow back to normal over may and June. That is why the Government are paying people for March April and May. I fully trust Boris and his new Government to deliver. Maybe the mistrust of Parliament in the past has over spilled into this scenario and I fully understand that.

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By L Haldane
07th Apr 2020 09:48

Get a grip !

Whilst I am attending to my client's enquiries my daughter is doing 12 hour shifts as a front line nurse on a coronavirus ward. I may be tired but she is exhausted and frightened for her life and the lives of her colleagues, every hour of every shift she puts in.

Stop moaning and be glad that you are safe at your desk whilst doing your bit to get us all through this.

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Replying to L Haldane:
By 0098087
07th Apr 2020 09:54

Hey, it was a response to the article. I do support the front line NHS staff, i ain't no hypocrite who stands and claps and then votes four times in 10 years to have funding cut while the well off have their taxes cut and the right wing want us out of the EU so they can avoid the new tax avoidance law.
I don't like Boris but I would never wish him dead. I require him to leave his post democratically

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Replying to 0098087:
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By johnjenkins
07th Apr 2020 14:10

Please tell me you're not in the Accountancy profession.

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Replying to L Haldane:
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By tax91
07th Apr 2020 10:18

I send my best wishes to your daughter, L Haldane, and to all those fabulous folks in the NHS who do risk their lives for us.
Yes, we are all busy, and for most we are alive and well. And while it is well past the end of January and the stress has resurged, let us take a deep breath, have a nice cup of tea (or coffee), and do what we all do well - help our panicked clients and try and avoid burnout.
Best wishes to you all and stay safe.
tax 91

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Replying to tax91:
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By Pam Moreland
07th Apr 2020 10:39

Absolutely. As small firm accountants we are used to deadlines and stress as well as being the fount of all information (not!). As others are keeping the health service going and the supermarket shelves full we can and must try to help our clients and calm them down through their panics. If we all pull together and help each other we shall have stronger relationships once this crisis subsides.
Thank goodness for mobile phones and the internet.
After all the UK motto is keep calm and carry on!

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Replying to L Haldane:
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By hannahaston
07th Apr 2020 10:40

Yet again judgemental [***] with negative comments! We are all dealing with a scary time and of course the front line workers are doing an amazing job and we have so much to be grateful for and not demeaning them whatsoever!! However, come on be kind to everyone??? We are all in different circumstances!!

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Replying to hannahaston:
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By L Haldane
07th Apr 2020 10:57

.................and your comment is not judgemental ??

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Replying to L Haldane:
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By hannahaston
07th Apr 2020 12:08

Errrrm no not that I am aware of?! It’s trying to point out that your comment was not very nice and you need to be more aware and empathetic of other people’s situations. Quite simple.

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Replying to hannahaston:
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By L Haldane
07th Apr 2020 12:33

In the midst of a crisis people need to man up and stop moaning. I am all for giving support where it is due, but when people are dying I have no time for those who would rather shout about their own problems.

I am in the same boat as every other accountant with the phone ringing off the hook, and as I see it, being a busy accountant is not exactly a hardship in the wider scheme of things.

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Replying to L Haldane:
Stepurhan
By stepurhan
09th Apr 2020 10:25

If someone is having their leg bitten off by a dog, telling them to put up with it because people who are on fire are worse off is not helpful.

Sympathy is not a zero sum game. Bemoaning our own, very real, pressures and problems does not take away from the support for NHS workers.

Because if you follow that thought to its natural conclusion, we should all only care about the one person in the world that has it worse than anybody. Any idea who that is?

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Replying to stepurhan:
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By johnjenkins
09th Apr 2020 12:18

Unfortunately you got the analogy wrong. In both cases they would have to be cared for in some way by the front line workers.

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Replying to stepurhan:
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By L Haldane
09th Apr 2020 13:39

I completely agree that sympathy is not a zero sum game, but in a time of crisis there is no place for turning self-sympathy into a fine art.

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By Whitnalls44
07th Apr 2020 09:52

Put your voicemail on and encourage people to email otherwise you will get nothing done - you can then deal with emails in order of importance or when received if you are disciplined
Resist the temptation to give people figures - as far as I can see we are not even sure what they mean by profits - after add-backs, before capital allowances etc ? I suspect the letters HMRC send out may be pre-populated so that might save a lot of work going forward
Bit of karma for those clients who have been fiddling for years though !

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Replying to Whitnalls44:
By 0098087
07th Apr 2020 09:56

VM is on. All they want is figures, figures, figures. How many times do we tell them we can't phone 100 payroll clients. Read the emails!!! I am not the Chancellor of the Exchuequer.

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By Self-Employed and Happy
07th Apr 2020 11:06

VERY VERY challenging, at times there was a thought of "at this moment I wish I was employed" for multiple reasons.

I've had to resort to hands free earphones as my ear and phone were sweaty (disgusting I know), during the week commencing 23rd March I logged about 30 hours of phone time, all to clients worried / scared about the future. I think the most dis-heartening element was either having no advice to give or having vague wording at which you didn't really want to give advice based on as you hoped more clarity would follow. Add to that clients expecting us to know about other items which are not accountancy related at all, it just smacked of having no one else to turn to and I think some clients have been blown away by our service, they've encouraged friends to like our Facebook page which is regularly updated.

Add to that my partner and I are VERY newly self-employed so aren't entitled to a penny ourselves (which is fine for the moment) and fortunately we only had one client who was the hysterical (ME ME ME) type (I think we'll move them on when this is over), I think that has helped us through (nice understanding clients), we've been very careful to take on clients who we get on with and want to help due to us thinking they are nice people.

We are still being paid for our services as all companies are on monthly DD which effectively spreads the cost of accounts, we have a few bookkeeping clients which we go to collect records for as they are still open. This is done by us ringing the client to say we are outside, the client puts the records in an agreed place (like a doorway), they watch me walk up and swap records (plastic folder), this then gets wiped down and is put in a separate room for 4 days before being touched.

Some will ask, is this essential travel? Yes, to us it is. We won't get a penny if we close down, we are newly self employed (grant is no use) and (stupidly) we have savings which are for our future taxes (year end coming up) which means any Universal Credit is out the window.

We are still concerned, our main job at present (other than usual compliance) is to help our clients through to the other side, it's possible a few might not make it to be honest, so the challenge is what do we do in 3-6 months time when clients have been lost through no fault of our own?

Many questions such as, will we have enough to sustain us both? Will one of us have to get a temporary job until we win enough clients to get back to having both of us?

For the past (nearly) year we have been full steam ahead picking up clients and growing, the thought of that going to waste is demoralising.

The challenge for us is not now, it is what happens next.

Overall (doesn't sound it) on reflection I am positive, I see the next 3-6 months as an opportunity to expand and take clients from accountants that have not given a great service over this period.

PS I see many posts relating to front line NHS staff etc, simply put that goes WITHOUT saying that they are the people to be worried about, yet it seems some don't have the ability to simply reply to what the article is discussing.

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Replying to Self-Employed and Happy:
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By AnnAccountant
08th Apr 2020 15:57

Thank you for telling us just about every thought in your head ;)

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By indomitable
07th Apr 2020 10:17

Oh dear!

We are lucky enough to work in a profession where we can work from home and most of us won’t lose our livelihood or been closed due the the crisis
Think about the heroic NHS staff and care workers that every day are working long hours and literally putting their lives at risk.

And Nick you are talking about us accountants suffering from burnout!

I do not like this article!

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Replying to indomitable:
nick_elston
By Nick Elston
07th Apr 2020 12:02

Hey @indomitable - I absolutely agree with you - what right minded person wouldn't! However, we are discussing the challenges that you as a profession are experiencing right now - without the obvious gratitude, goodwill and support we all should be showing the Key & Essential Workers right now - more than ever. I get your point totally - everyone is in the same boat with very unique challenges & my 'job' here is to address the unique challenges that you - as Accountants - find yourselves facing. Stay well & here if you ever want to reach out to me directly too. Cheers, Nick

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Replying to Nick Elston:
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By indomitable
07th Apr 2020 13:01

Sorry Nick in these difficult times it doesn't help to focus people's attention onto 'dare I say it' minor anxieties.

The world is going through a pandemic, people are losing their lives, families are losing their relative, some businesses are losing their livelihoods and some do not know how to pay their bills at the moment

I count myself as one of the lucky ones. I may lose a few clients, be fielding many calls but really my situation and that of most accountants is probably OK

So please have a reality check here

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Replying to indomitable:
nick_elston
By Nick Elston
07th Apr 2020 13:26

I get it, truly. No reality check needed, trust me - people assume that because I am still active in my profile & 'out there' that I am not affected. My livelihood has completely gone, so I get it - it's been brutal - being completely honest with you here. Literally £0 coming in right now. That being said I am still in agreement with you - despite all of my business being wiped out for the foreseeable future - as my livelihood is around private & public events - I maintain the same stance as you as lives and survival are far more important. I am doing all I can to support loved ones, pivoting like mad to be able to support my family and reaching out to people to help in the best way I can. I have no income as of 2 weeks ago, so I get it. But I also understand it's my responsibility here to address the direct needs of the reader/subscriber who posted in to me to share their situation - elsewhere I have even posted videos of thanks to NHS Staff, Key Workers & Essential Workers & I volunteer my time to whoever needs it at this time.

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By pauljohnston
07th Apr 2020 11:36

Hannah sums all that is going on very nicely " come on be kind to everyone".

My wife and I walk as soon as the sun is up everyday. We meet the same 3 or 4 people who wave and shout greetings. The roads are deserted so we walk on the tarmac. When a car approaches we get out of the way, every car driver without fail waves and thanks us with a hand sign".

Life is different and tough but those that go the extra mile will have satifaction and clients. Those that cant be bothered will have less

Smile its Tuesday

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By Ian McTernan CTA
07th Apr 2020 12:28

The key is in making sure you disseminate the information to your clients, including links, so that they can do things themselves. It really cuts down on queries.

It sounds like your clients are either not getting the information they need or they are the sort who will, when you tell them to apply for UC, ask you to complete the online application for them.

Giving them all regular updates (try forwarding Ben Bradley MP's newsletter summaries) by email whenever the rules are changed or clarified cuts down on having dozens of the same email or phone call with clients as you have already answered the query.

Be pro active not reactive and you will find your workload much less.

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Replying to Ian McTernan CTA:
By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
07th Apr 2020 14:13

Spot on, the first thing i did over the weekend of the 21/22nd was build a new webpage and directed all client queries to that first thing with basic help and links to gov help. it is updated daily.

Yesterday we circulated a structured instructions about director furloughs and have dealt with 50+ clients on this in 24 hours, albeit with a 12 hour day yesterday on my part.

By triaging the enquiries we are mainly left with the real problems and the "I cant read stuff" brigade.

Its been hard work, but to be fair its quietest time of year. At least it was not in the middle of Jan!

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By buttercup books
07th Apr 2020 12:39

I totally agree it's a luxury to be able to sit at home in isolation safe from the nasty things of the world and earn good money when other are risking their lives for us all

but - I'm also aware that I'm exhausted -

I'm worn down by spending my live trying to keep up to date, trying to do my job and at the same time research every new whim of HMRC, and paying for all the software changes these whims cost

When it started with RTI, RTI seemed huge, we thought it was a nightmare, now it's so small in comparison to later changes , MTD , GDPR, MTD for Tax, Brexit VAT, and on the horizon - Domestic Reverse VAT for CIS -

If my governing body wants an audit check on my CPD - I might have to strangle someone, because it isn't possible to work in our industry without spending hours of unpaid time doing research and training =CPD

Now with Corvid 19 on top, with my own fears, and fears for my family and friends and NHS, and watching the business of clients go down the pan, and the huge horror to come in the refugee camps and across India and Africa, I'm burning out,

sorry, forgive the rant, I know compared to most I've got it easy, we've got it easy , it just doesn't make me feel any less exhausted and I'm tired by the endless battering from HMRC - just for once I'd like to see HMRC acknowledge just how much we are doing to keep the finances of the small business running, just how much we do, just how much skill we bring to the table

BB

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John Stokdyk, AccountingWEB head of insight
By John Stokdyk
07th Apr 2020 14:37

Interesting discussion, but can people heed one of Nick's excellent pieces of advice in the podcast to be kind to yourselves?

That understanding can also extend to other people you encounter at these difficult times. It can be tempting to be holier than thou, but can everyone try and suppress that urge?

Yes there are many, many other people in much more difficult circumstances than members of AccountingWEB. But that does not negate any stress and anxiety people are experiencing. Sharing what we're going through is an effective way to gauge what is happening in the wider world and to gain a wider perspective - particularly when accountants are directly supporting so many small businesses.

Nobody here would dispute that it's a hard, dangerous slog trying to keep patients alive on NHS wards. But accountants working all hours to help client businesses trying to keep their heads above the water is also an essential service that shouldn't be underestimated if we want to get back to a semblance of pre-virus normality.

Nick was kind enough to respond with advice to a specific member's difficulties and the subsequent response indicates that the OP in Any Answers wasn't the only one to be struggling with the crisis. It's certainly better to admit that you're stressed and vulnerable than pressing on oblivious of any danger signals and warnings flashing around you.

So keep calm, carry on, and take good care of yourselves too.

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Replying to John Stokdyk:
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By indomitable
07th Apr 2020 16:03

No wonder the term 'snowflake generation' came into being!

I suggest you sit down and talk to a nurse or doctor working on the frontline, it may change your perspective

"But accountants working all hours to help client businesses trying to keep their heads above the water is also an essential service that shouldn't be underestimated if we want to get back to a semblance of pre-virus normality."

ALL HOURS? keeping clients afloat - what accountants are doing that? Overdramatic

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Replying to indomitable:
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By Halex
07th Apr 2020 21:40

You may not be working long hours- but some working in businesses and charities are - just trying to keep as many of their colleagues in jobs as they can. Coronavirus is the quick killer. Unemployment and poverty is just the slower one.

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By Tom 7000
07th Apr 2020 16:17

They all want free advice......

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By Open all hours
07th Apr 2020 18:56

Yes, we’re busy. Isn’t that why we went into business?

These are some of the best days, clients expressing real appreciation for our efforts.

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Replying to Open all hours:
By 0098087
07th Apr 2020 22:27

Appreciation. I wish

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By AS44NG
11th Apr 2020 21:31

After the first 2 days of relentless calls and emails we had the idea of adding an extra page to our website dedicated to the funding available to businesses affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Basically a copy and paste of the government wording with explanations added by us.

This seemed to do the trick. We now inform clients to go to our website and say everything we know is on there.

Some clients still call and ask, but if the answer is on the website I ask them to go read it and look out for updates. We have updated the website for the first time last week as more detail of the proposed funding emerges.

I agree with the OP in that is effectively another January, just this time without the billing :-(

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By Graham Suggett
12th Apr 2020 10:28

A good and thoughtful response - many thanks Nick.

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By 0098087
12th Apr 2020 10:51

Thursday. Phone call. What are these payslips for, pub client. Well you have to pay them, what? You have to pay them and then we will get the 80% back from hmrc. [***] off client, blaming us. Really getting fed up with this, and no, I’m not equating this with the nhs, but why do we have to get it. Write to your mp. As I’ve mentioned all payrolls entered individually? Wtf? I ask again, how are the big companies doing it. Do they get a system where they can enter thousands in one go or what and why can’t we??

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