Managing Director Beam Development & Training Ltd
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Burnout
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Accountants burned out amid never-ending stress

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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.

5th Jul 2021
Managing Director Beam Development & Training Ltd
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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.

Recognising burnout

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:

  • Insomnia
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Pessimism
  • 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. 

Replies (25)

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By Self-Employed and Happy
06th Jul 2021 09:37

The best advice I can give is getting rid of clients.

Ones that have been overly precious, ones who have no regard or consideration for your time, the ones that think they are your only client.

Even if they bring in a good fee it's best to just ditch them, if you roll your eyes when their number pops up or you purposely don't answer (with no good reason other than you can't be bothered to speak to them) then they need to go.

Fill your client base with nice people, they are out there.

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Replying to Self-Employed and Happy:
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By johnjenkins
06th Jul 2021 10:01

That's it just take the attitude of lenders who just lend to the squeaky clean. You have just highlighted the difference between Accountants and number crunchers. When you get to the stage where "you can't be bothered to speak to a client" then I think it's time you left the profession. Accountancy is a profession. Our clients look to us for guidance and the way we give that guidance gives the client confidence, that is what makes an Accountant.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
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By HLB
06th Jul 2021 10:20

To a point I agree with you but I also agree with Self-employed and Happy. BMWs (bithchers, moaners and whiners) can have a detrimental affect on practices and practitioners. By all means try and make them into good clients but if you can't then do yourself and them a favour by recommending they move to someone who can live up to their expectations.

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Replying to HLB:
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By johnjenkins
06th Jul 2021 12:04

I can certainly see SE and H point of view but for me it's not the right attitude for an Accountant to have.
The first interview with a client is the most important. That's where you learn what is expected from both sides and you should be able to glean a lot of information to determine if the partnership will work.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
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By HLB
06th Jul 2021 14:13

Absolutely correct that the first interview is most important but in these days of firm consolidation (I have either purchased or merged 5 times in a 34 year career) you will inherit this type of client.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
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By Self-Employed and Happy
06th Jul 2021 14:38

Double post

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Replying to johnjenkins:
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By Self-Employed and Happy
06th Jul 2021 14:44

johnjenkins wrote:

That's it just take the attitude of lenders who just lend to the squeaky clean. You have just highlighted the difference between Accountants and number crunchers. When you get to the stage where "you can't be bothered to speak to a client" then I think it's time you left the profession. Accountancy is a profession. Our clients look to us for guidance and the way we give that guidance gives the client confidence, that is what makes an Accountant.

Incorrect, I have highlighted the difference between an Accountant who has certain expectations of his clients (which are agreed upon signing on), which therefore enable me to provide the very high level of service I wish to offer my clients and an Accountant that will happily get trod all over, give out advice but not take it themselves.

Yes Accountancy is a profession, yes clients rely on our advice, but we should not be scared of applying the same levels of efficiency and candour within our own businesses.

On a couple of occasions I've not correctly assessed a client, our expectations were different and I asked them to move on to someone more suitable for them.

It's 100% nothing to do with "squeaky clean" we have people who are messy and we simply collect a big folder each month and sort it out, but those messy people appreciate what we do and the value you add (in comparison to previous accountants), we've taken on people in an absolute state where there are HMRC queries going back years and have sorted them out, those types where they couldn't be more grateful and randomly pay a bloody "bonus" for good work (which we raise an invoice for!).

It's about the people, circling back to my original comment, surround yourself with nice people.

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Replying to Self-Employed and Happy:
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By johnjenkins
06th Jul 2021 15:45

It would appear from your first post and reply to mine that you are indeed a "fine weather" Accountant, which I call "number crunchers". Don't get me wrong I have nothing against number crunchers, it's just your post about not bothering to answer the phone to a client leads me to believe that you certainly don't get to "know" your client and that is why you have problems with them.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
By buttercup books
06th Jul 2021 18:25

Sorry, I don't often disagree, but I don't think OP is a fine weather accountant - or a number cruncher. A number cruncher is someone who doesn't care, I worked - for a very limited time - for an office where everything was dumped in auto-feed scanner and sent to India - and came back - interesting!!!!. That's a number cruncher.

I go along with OP - when you're self employed and going it alone, get rid of the people that drive you mad - there are nice, genuine, appreciative clients who will do anything to help you. I actually enjoy the bags of invoices - especially when there's a bar of chocolate in the bottom. I would go a long way to help my importers through brexit, and my subbies through Domestic CIS - but if they sap my energy - they can go -
shame we can't get rid of HMRC

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Replying to buttercup books:
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By johnjenkins
07th Jul 2021 08:52

You said it. "A number cruncher is someone who doesn't care", which fits the description of someone who can't be bothered to answer the phone to a client.
I must agree about getting rid of HMRC. They are not fit for purpose and haven't been for a long time. They want us to do all the donkey work without a modicum of control.
We all get uptight every now and then, that's life. If we don't have the bad we can't appreciate the good. The key is to get to know your client at first interview. It's far too easy to just take a few details and do a surface interview. Engagement letters are far too formal (yes of course they are needed). We deal with the clients finances and livelihood so the more we know the more we can advise.

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Replying to Self-Employed and Happy:
Chris M
By mr. mischief
06th Jul 2021 10:32

My approach is to write a letter spelling out exactly what someone needs to do to remain a client, and by when. This puts the ball firmly in their court. 80% of the time nothing changes and I resign with a happy heart. 20% of the time it transforms behaviour and some have gone on to become really good, long term clients.

So whether it's deadline chasing or not taking no for an answer - which is very common right now, requests to re-do dividends from March 2020 to support a mortgage being one recent example of the genre - or abusive behaviour, just politely spell out what needs doing and by when and you might be surprised by some of the results.

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Replying to Self-Employed and Happy:
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By Gary Copland
06th Jul 2021 11:00

Totally agree with you. There are some clients who no matter what you do, will just expect more and more & often moan if you charge extra for additional work. I recently lost a client because he wanted monthly management accounts after he was approached by another firm with an offer to do them for him. He had never even asked if I would be prepared to do them for him. I just bid him a fond farewell.

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Replying to Self-Employed and Happy:
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By Hugo Fair
06th Jul 2021 11:50

Agreed, but it's always hard to say goodbye to a contracted income stream (even when your heart and head both agree that it's all for the best).
Which is why we decided, many moons ago, to add a layer into the process of being selected in the first place. We are very upfront that it is not just the prospective client deciding on whether we should provide services to them in the future ... but also and equally we are deciding on whether we are prepared to represent them.
Some are shocked by this candour, but many have been pleased with such 'plain-speaking' and have gone on to be happy (for both parties) clients for 25+ years.

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Replying to Hugo Fair:
Maytuna
By DJKL
07th Jul 2021 15:23

Certainly ought to make them treasure you more as they passed the entrance test.

Its like awards, the ones you work for you value, the ones you get for nothing are
merely so what. (e.g , my first degree, I value, my certificate (Times I think) for being one of the UK's fastest growing companiesK (Gazelle Award) could not care less as we only won it because one year we did a never to be repeated property sale.

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Replying to Hugo Fair:
Maytuna
By DJKL
07th Jul 2021 15:23

Certainly ought to make them treasure you more as they passed the entrance test.

Its like awards, the ones you work for you value, the ones you get for nothing are
merely so what. (e.g , my first degree, I value, my certificate (Times I think) for being one of the UK's fastest growing companiesK (Gazelle Award) could not care less as we only won it because one year we did a never to be repeated property sale.

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By arthvirg230
06th Jul 2021 10:01

It seriously doesn't help that HMRC are utterly useless.

That and the ever increasing use of cloud software by clients that don't have a clue what they're doing.

moan over.

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Replying to arthvirg230:
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By bendybod
06th Jul 2021 10:19

HMRC are making us look incompetent at the moment. I had a client ask me what the timescale for getting a response to his application for something was. There is absolutely no way that I can answer that question. If I phoned then probably I would get told it was some time in September but as I couldn't get through by phone, I had to do it by post, so who knows....!

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By Gary Copland
06th Jul 2021 10:52

In addition to all the stress & headaches caused by increased workload caused by the pandemic I suffered a heart attack two weeks ago. The clients who have been supportive & understanding far outnumber those who couldn't care less. It's made me take stock and as I get back on my feet I have taken the decision to step back and shed those clients who are more trouble than they are worth. Less income equals less stress. They can become someone else's problems.

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Replying to Gary Copland:
By Silver Birch Accts
06th Jul 2021 14:17

I am really sorry to read that you have had a heart attack., hope you recovering.

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Replying to Gary Copland:
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By Southwestbeancounter
06th Jul 2021 14:33

So sorry to hear this; Wishing you a very speedy recovery.

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Glenn Martin
By Glenn Martin
06th Jul 2021 12:48

Like others have said I have had a big clear out of people who don't tow the line and have had chance after chance to sort themselves out.

A big issue for us getting paperwork from people we are literally filing VAT returns with a day or so to go, just messes up workflow and impacts on the service you can deliver for your good clients.

So I cut about 30% of client base In April/May. When I was doing the clearance requests I was little concerned at how many we had cut, but the time I got back instantly was huge.

We have also had a flurry of really good leads which sort of confirms it was the right decision as we couldn't have taken them on without ditching the non compliant clients.

The nearest thing I can compare it to is that when someone has been in a coma for a long time they have to learn to walk again. Clients who had to close down have almost forgotten how to run their business and can no longer do the basics like send invoices to us and not just 50% of them.

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By Ian McTernan CTA
06th Jul 2021 13:13

It's almost as if people have suddenly discovered this thing called 'stress' and now everyone is 'suffering' from it. And now 'chronic stress'. It's almost as if we didn't expect any stress at all in our lives and it's all come as a complete shock that sometimes life can be stressful!

The more people talk it up, the more people suffer from it. Rather than worry endlessly, do something about it.

There are busy periods in this job- we all know that coming in, be ready and deal with it.

Taking on too many clients and not getting rid of the useless ones are the main causes of 'stress', so until you take action on that then everything else you do is postponing the day when you realise what you need to do. All the running in the world won't fix this.

I deal with stress by not having it, or dealing with the issues that are causing it. A client throwing things at the last minute isn't a cause for stress- I just tell them they left it until the last minute and it doesn't get done in time then they will incur penalties. If they don't like it they are free to go elsewhere...

Your crisis is not mine. The best help you can give these clients is to make them realise you're not a doormat and won't be used as one. You know you have them trained when the apologise and ask nicely if you will be able to get it done in time, then you say you will try but they should expect penalties and they should get it to you earlier.

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Replying to Ian McTernan CTA:
By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
06th Jul 2021 16:09

As ever Ian nails it.

I spent a huge amount of my time managing my clients expectations, and as a result (in the main) everyone is well trained and sends things when I ask them to and is pleasant to work with.

Sometimes people throw a wobbly and demand time, and yup its part of the service to help them, but in the main people who rub me up the wrong way get shown where the door is. Its my practice, my rules.

The best clients are usually the ones you don't notice too much. Those are the ones I try to spend time with, the ones who demand this and that and ignore your deadlines are not clients I like to work with.

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By seonaid anderson
07th Jul 2021 10:23

Interesting there is also a link today to an article on Accountants being burned out.. ( sorry meant to add this to the one on the 5th SEISS..)

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By Philosophic1
01st Aug 2021 15:25

Great tips in the article as well as in the comments. Definitely time to change client base profile - perhaps changing service offering altogether (services where I am no longer the middle man between HMRC and the client). Also definitely time a good new habit to form; 30 minutes on the punch bag after shutting down the laptop for the day.

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