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Accountants lose mojo amid compliance headaches

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As Covid restrictions are lifted in England and the country navigates life without social distancing rules, many practitioners are still feeling the strain after the pandemic stripped them of their accounting mojo.

20th Jul 2021
Editor AccountingWEB
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Although the peak of the Covid workload is in the rearview mirror, many practitioners are still living with the unresolved burnout and stress of the past 18 months. 

On a recent episode of Any Answers Live, 69% of attendees admitted feeling “tired but still trudging on”, while only 6% surveyed felt energised. The mood of the audience indicated that the profession’s wellbeing still hasn’t rebounded. 

We invited Lucy Cohen, Sharon Critchlow and Zoe Whitman on to the AccountingWEB Live virtual sofa to explore some of the ways accountants can boost their wellbeing and rediscover their enthusiasm.   

Feeling fed up

Since the pandemic hit, practitioners had to contend with their normal workload alongside all the Covid support work and acting as emotional counsellors for their clients. Many firms had to shelve business development plans and growth targets. “It’s no wonder everyone is feeling fed up,” said Cohen, the founder of Mazuma Accountants. 

Critchlow, an ACCA global member and wellbeing expert, concurred. “It’s only human to take it home and carry that collective anxiety and worry. Anyone that’s spent the last 18 months getting their head around furlough and CBILSs deserves the George Cross.”

Accountants are used to deadlines and that 31 January feeling, but over the past year those January blues haven’t gone away and few have accountants have had the opportunity to take that February ski trip or get away to regroup and reboot; instead, they’ve been getting more tired and fed up. 

But now it’s no longer the ongoing Covid workload that’s sapping the profession’s motivation, it’s a multitude of burdens. The Any Answers Live audience are groaning under the strain of the never-ending compliance headaches (31%), client demands (28%), Making Tax Digital (19%), HMRC (16%) and the Covid workload (6%).

To regain their zest, accountants need to prioritise their own wellbeing. “It is not selfish, it’s a necessity,” said Critchlow. “Think about what is the one thing you can do for you today. Put yourself on your own to-do list.”

Get rid of unappreciative clients

Unfortunately clients can be a constant source of stress for practitioners. Like anyone else, accountants want to be appreciated and know they are making a difference. But some clients are predisposed to moan. And no matter the positive client feedback, we will hang on to the criticism. All this will chip away at your mojo. 

“The reality is that if you have ‘mood hoovers’ in your client bank, get rid of them,” advised Critchlow. “Bless them on to somebody else. If they don’t hold the same values as you, or are disrespectful of your time or team, are they really a good fit?”

Zoe Whitman, the director of the six figure bookkeeper, added that “it’s not just about finding ideal clients, it’s about whether we are the ideal bookkeeper or accountant. 

“This is a caring profession, but if it is grinding you down, you need to take a step back and think again about your customer strategy.” 

A growing number of firms post pandemic are rebalancing their client relationships, and in turn their mojo, by grading clients and off loading those who have been unappreciative or no longer fit the firm’s direction. Practitioners can achieve this by setting boundaries and saying no to clients now and again. 

Setting boundaries

“Everytime you say yes you give away a little of yourself. If you were willing to give away a little of yourself but in turn you get client respect and a good relationship, you can top that little piece of yourself back up again. But if it’s take take take, what’s left at the end of it?” said Cohen. 

If a complaint has come in that is unjustified and outside the service-level agreement, the Mazuma Accountants founder encourages her colleagues to say no. She extends this to her time too. 

“Over the last year we’ve all felt that we had to be available all the time. So block out your calendar. No negotiation. If you say no to something it doesn’t mean you would never get asked to do something again. Saying no to stuff makes you more exclusive.” 

Vision, purpose and goals

Just as important as setting boundaries, the panel encouraged viewers to speak with their best clients as a way to help practitioners fall back in love with the profession 

“I guarantee that you’ve given them so much more value on a personal level that you don’t realise how valuable you’ve been. You think they pay you for the technical job. You think they’re paying you for the technical, but it’s taking that stress away. If we think MTD is a nightmare, they’re just grateful that you’re there,” said Critchlow.  

Now the strain of the Covid workload has been lifted off accountants’ shoulders, they are able to start focusing on their business and their goals. Practitioners often get their clients to think about this, but sometimes don’t ask themselves the same questions.  

Whitman urged viewers to take time to think about what their ideal day would look like in their ideal life. With the bookkeepers she’s advised, it’s helped them design the business they want. 

As Cohen put it, “If your business doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work.” 

This episode of Any Answers Live is packed full of advice to help accountants recapture their mojo and is CPD accredited. You can watch it now on demand.

Has the toll of the last 18 months made you fall out of love with your job and the profession? What is the biggest cause of your stress and anxiety? 

Replies (18)

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Richard Brewin
By Richard Brewin
20th Jul 2021 10:33

Some great thoughts from the panel and I think that phrase, "a multitude of burdens" really sums up the position many practitioners find themselves in right now. We've heard a lot about pressing the reset button but it is so true and accountants must start with themselves and their own teams and firms if they are to then have any positive impact on their clients. Many of us have rethought our lives and priorities during the last 18 months and it is important for accounting firm owners to remember that it is their firm and it can run however they damn well want it to, within legal, ethical and professional limits that few have a desire to cross in any case. They can determine the 'rules' and values of their firm and it is then the free choice of clients and team members to decide if it is the right firm for them. Only then do you end up with the right people around you. Run your firm the way you believe is right, to your values and standards, and let others decide to come onboard. Don't chase other people's goals and don't let others dictate how to run your firm and your day.

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Replying to Richard Brewin:
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By johnjenkins
20th Jul 2021 14:36

Whilst a lot of what you say is true, isn't it our job, as Accountants, to deal with these issues. If you can't run your own firm what chance have you got of advising others.
This Pandemic has hit the whole world and all business, so there is a lot of drained tension about and it will be with us for another year. Once the world starts getting back on track then the renewed energy will seep through and we will all feel a lot better.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
Richard Brewin
By Richard Brewin
20th Jul 2021 21:26

I completely agree, John, but there is, and always has been, a significant element of our profession who apply a “Do as I say, not as I do” strategy, knowingly or unknowingly. Being an accountant in practice doesn’t necessarily correlate with bring either entrepreneurial or commercial. That’s not a criticism, merely an observation.
My main issue though is more about bringing more enjoyment into the role and less stress by taking a different and more personal view on priorities and goals, being prepared to work to a different mould.

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Replying to Richard Brewin:
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By johnjenkins
21st Jul 2021 08:50

Stress has been with Accountants (and most professionals come to that) since I don't know when. The mold is the same, just different ways of preparing the filling. Over my many years I have found it amazing just how many people (in all walks of life) are in business on their own account (in one way or another) that really shouldn't be. From an Accountants' point of view, if you have done your training you know the sort of problems that can occur so before you start on your own you should have a vast experience of dealing with them. Admittedly the last few years have seen the demise of HMRC into something that can no longer be understood or tolerated but this is just a hiccup in the grand scheme of things. Enjoyment comes with the persons personality and people skills. Personality you've either got or not. People skills should be learnt whilst training. An interesting observation I have found is that the bookkeepers that I have met and dealt with appear to have a more bland personality and maybe that's why they are bookkeepers and not Accountants.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
Richard Brewin
By Richard Brewin
21st Jul 2021 10:29

Bit harsh on bookkeepers there, John!

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By johnjenkins
22nd Jul 2021 15:53

Just an observation not an opinion. Have you got hiccups?

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By snickersinatwix
20th Jul 2021 10:53

I am still waiting for a response to a letter from the VAT office that I sent in December last year despite several chasers and phone conversations (I don't care any more - I have done my own thing and they can like it or lump it when they finally get to us - the client has deregistered now anyway so good luck with changing anything...).

The income tax lot are also taking c 3 months to reply to anything.

Phone lines - even the re-introduced agents help line - are appalling.

So HOW DARE THEY try to impose anything new on us (MTD, especially for rental clients, is giving me nightmares) when their own house is so badly out of order?

We have to challenge this?

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Replying to snickersinatwix:
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By OrmeGoat
20th Jul 2021 11:43

It's a complete waste of time. The politicians and senior HMRC management are more interested in their inflation-linked pensions, honours and cosy private-sector jobs when they retire (earlier than most of us).
The politicians don't know their **** from their elbow when it comes down to the tax system. Any ideas come from the E in their PPEs from Oxford or Cambridge.
The senior managers are too scared to say boo to a goose let alone MPs. Men of straw.

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Replying to snickersinatwix:
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By eppingaccountant
20th Jul 2021 14:02

Agreed Snickers. I have several cases where we have not received replies from HMRC. In particular for one newish client I took on at the beginning of the year, the client and I (with 64-8) contacted the VAT office with a specific request and did not receive a reply. Our initial contact with them was in February 2021. Since then, I have sent in five follow up chasers at regular intervals, and the most recent one I sent about two weeks ago, I threatened legal action against them for not replying to any of them so far, thus leaving my client in an uncertain position. Needless to say they still haven't replied. Assuming that we eventually do receive a reply, I do want to take this further in terms of Complaint Procedure....but is it worth my time and effort? The most we can realistically hope for is a letter acknowledging their delays, blaming it on lack of staff during Covid and "assuring" me that in future lead times will get better. But if my client is one day late filing her Return.... We really are in an unfairly balanced profession. Not only do HMRC take eons to respond, when they eventually do, their letter often contains errors. And based upon my previous experience with HMRC which now spans well over 40 years, we will probably all read an HMRC Report later this year stating they are pleased to report that "waiting times in getting back to our customers (Grrrr I hate that word in this context) have improved!

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Jennifer Adams
By Jennifer Adams
20th Jul 2021 11:54

HMRC have been a major pain. I'm currently hanging on the phone for someone in the VAT 'helpline' to answer as I need to :
1. change my agents address
2, get them to reauthenticate a client so I can submit this quarters VAT return. Been fine for years up until now and suddenly ... no period shown. Software providers says its not them.

I've already been cut off twice.

I've tried at different times of the day over last week so this morning decided just to ring and wait and wait.

While I'm waiting I thought I'd read Rob's article and I notice that Critchlow says'
The reality is that if you have ‘mood hoovers’ in your client bank, get rid of them,” advised Critchlow. “Bless them on to somebody else. If they don’t hold the same values as you, or are disrespectful of your time or team, are they really a good fit?”

I got rid of my most painful clients some time ago now I am left with lovely ones and many have been with the firm for years. But some have now turned into what could be termed 'a pain' but that is only because they have been worried. I still have clients in the entertainment industry who have had no work since the beginning of lockdown.

I'm not giving up on them now

But I am going to say one thing... this last year has been nothing to what we are all going to face with MTD.

PS>>> I'm giving up - been cut off again.

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Replying to Jennifer Adams:
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By eppingaccountant
20th Jul 2021 15:54

They cut you off deliberately. I have experienced the same on several occasions. MTD....Maximising Tax Difficulties.

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Replying to Jennifer Adams:
Chris M
By mr. mischief
20th Jul 2021 17:34

Due to their rubbishy system, I have been filing PAPER VAT returns for 2 clients - one since late 2019, one from early 2020. In each case I post a covering letter explaining:

1. If, as they claim, the client is using the wrong Gateway account the onus is on HMRC to tell him or her the right one and help get it working.

2. Any estimated numbers they are putting in - and they are - are totally eroneous as they have the paper returns.

3. One step out of line and I will be right down the VAT Tribunal as I have zero faith in the honesty or integrity of the internal HMRC processes.

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By bluebaron
20th Jul 2021 12:48

Felt more stressed last year. But HMRC make our job more and more difficult, and the spectre of further MTD rollout is a nightmare, so can't really look forward to the next few years.

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Replying to bluebaron:
Richard Brewin
By Richard Brewin
22nd Jul 2021 14:54

I think that there are many who share your thoughts here bluebaron. I was talking with an accountant this morning about HMRC's performance and my advice is to focus on making sure that your firm is MTD-ready and your clients are MTD- ready. That's all you can do. Given HMRC's challenges and staffing issues, the situation will only get worse so ensure that you and your clients are informed and ready and keep HMRC's problems in their camp.

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Replying to bluebaron:
Richard Brewin
By Richard Brewin
22nd Jul 2021 14:54

I think that there are many who share your thoughts here bluebaron. I was talking with an accountant this morning about HMRC's performance and my advice is to focus on making sure that your firm is MTD-ready and your clients are MTD- ready. That's all you can do. Given HMRC's challenges and staffing issues, the situation will only get worse so ensure that you and your clients are informed and ready and keep HMRC's problems in their camp.

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Replying to Richard Brewin:
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By bluebaron
22nd Jul 2021 16:19

Thanks. However, I won't be getting involved in MTD for Income Tax, I just don't want the hassle, and fortunately I only have a handful of sole trader clients now, anyway.

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By North East Accountant
20th Jul 2021 13:05

Covid's the warm up act and is going to look like a walk in the park once MTDfIT hits in April 2023.

So whatever gets your Mojo going, just do it, life really is far too short ......and way to short dealing with the rubbish that HMRC throw at us every day.

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By RogerMT
27th Jul 2021 14:15

The Joy of HMRC (part XXIV)
A month ago I sent in a paper CGT return for the sale of a rental property for an elderly client who has no chance of being able to cope with opening a Gateway account. At the end of the form it tells us not to send in payment with the form, but that HMRC will be in touch once they have checked the form with a notice to pay. Needless to say, we've heard nothing, and the payment deadline has now passed! Luckily I sent it "Signed For", so I know it's been delivered, at least.
Tomorrow I am going to have to bite the bullet and ring HMRC to try to find out what's happening. Not on the Agents' Helpline as that's only for SA and non-corporate PAYE, of course!

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