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Dear Nick: ‘I am paralysed by fear of making a mistake’

AccountingWEB’s resident agony uncle helps an accountant so overwhelmed by Covid work that they’re constantly fearful of making a mistake. 

17th Nov 2020
Speaker and coach #TalkingAnxiety
Columnist
In association with
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Dear Nick: "I don't know if it is the general fear and uncertainty around Covid or the lack of a proper holiday this year, but I am finding I am becoming paralysed by fear of making a mistake.

I have been checking and double checking everything. I have woken in the middle of the night and thought ‘I should have capitalised that expense!’ Reading an article or attending a CPD course might trigger a thought and I would end up checking emails over the past few years to see if I definitely advised a client correctly about a course of action. Was I clear enough? Did he understand? Did I keep proper notes of the meeting?

I have a small practice and we don't work with any large or complicated clients, so any "mistakes" should not be that material. I find myself taking on the clients' responsibilities more than I should, in that I am reminding them about things and spelling things out for them.

There are so many more rules and regulations than when I first qualified. It's hard to keep up with them all (not to mind all the new stuff due to Covid.)

Being stuck in the ‘home office’ all day only adds to the rumination. There is nothing to look forward to (holidays, weekend away, concerts, dinner with friends at the weekend), so life seems to revolve around work the whole time."

The response

Nick replies: Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. You touch on so many elements which are so prevalent right now – not just in accountancy, but also generally in life and in business.

Even though we come from different industries I can resonate so much with what you have written and I am sure that I won’t be alone in that, as readers delve into your letter.

From my experience, the two biggest anxiety triggers I constantly hear are change and procrastination.

Change is inevitable.

Procrastination – not so much!

Let’s face it: you are working in a tough profession, where the demands on your time, your attention to detail and your trusted professional advice are constantly sought after.

However, that demand increases when your mostly non-finance professional clients have anxiety triggered by money, tax and figures – only for that anxiety to transfer on to you.

Now, those feelings of anxiety are compounded when you throw in a global pandemic and clients struggling personally or professionally.

I’ve heard so many times from my accountant clients that as soon as Boris Johnson or Rishi Sunak announces the latest coronavirus support scheme, clients are on the phone expecting to know immediately what to do – and you have just seen the same press conference as they have.

We are living through one of the fastest and brutal periods of change that any of us will have ever known.

So firstly, we should applaud ourselves just for being here, still going, and still forging ahead – that takes courage, tenacity, but it does take its toll.

Secondly, the longer this ongoing situation continues, the more uncertainty it creates and the more changes are thrown up. This has and will create an underlying feeling of dread and anxiety for most people.

But it’s when people lose hope that things become dark. Trust me I’ve been there when I had my breakdown.

You have already mentioned rumination as one of the by-products or signs of high anxiety. The others to watch out for are: 

  • Hypersensitivity
  • Highly emotional responses
  • Heightened anger or aggression
  • Ultra-defensive behaviour
  • Lethargy or fatigue

If these things start to creep in to your personal and/or professional life, it’s time to start focusing on extra self-care, ‘recovery’ and taking some time out.

I know this is a stoic way of thinking, but we cannot control other people, we cannot control pandemics, we cannot control what regulations are put in place or how many. All we can control are our thoughts and our actions. But the first thing we sacrifice when we are struggling is choice. However, choice is all we do have – how we choose to go into each and every day. So, what can we focus on?

For me, it’s resilience. It’s what sport coaches call ‘marginal gains’ – those daily, consistent, and incremental changes to maintain focus, strength and to manage anxiety.

  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Nutrition
  • Hydration
  • Manageable pace of working
  • Fresh air
  • Recovery/recharge time
  • Social interaction (non-work)

If we can incorporate these things into our lives, we restore the balance, which will deter rumination and maintain confidence when you begin to doubt yourself.

If procrastination is a problem – which actually, self-doubt and declining confidence can really fuel procrastination – just ‘manage the manageables’.

What do I mean by that?

  • Do what you can do. 
  • Accept the things that you cannot change or influence. 
  • Take action to the best of your current knowledge and ability.
  • Move on.

Most of the time, False Evidence Appearing Real (F.E.A.R) is the reason why we procrastinate, doubt ourselves and obsess about potential errors.

Anxiety is created either by the thought of something, an assumed outcome or a lack of confidence, courage and conviction – very rarely is it about the actual thing.

When we think anxiety, we create anxiety. We damage ourselves mentally, spiritually, physically and emotionally – most often around things that never actually happen.

You’ve already started the process by checking back and realising that there were no errors and that you did a great job – continue on your mission to consistently prove your fears wrong.

Replies (6)

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By CazzyT
18th Nov 2020 12:49

"I’ve heard so many times from my accountant clients that as soon as Boris Johnson or Rishi Sunak announces the latest coronavirus support scheme, clients are on the phone expecting to know immediately what to do – and you have just seen the same press conference as they have."

Yes. This.

Thanks (3)
Replying to CazzyT:
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By Mature Student
20th Nov 2020 09:54

This doesn't just apply to accountants. Bank workers are experiencing the same when it comes to the various loan schemes. Never mind their IT staff who are trying to build new systems and constantly adapt them to cope with the applications and rules with as much notice as the public get.

And if you're thinking they're well paid for it AND get a bonus - the actual workers aren't nor do they get a bonus nowadays.

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By John Wheeley
19th Nov 2020 09:53

This is a an excellent article, thank you.

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By M3lissa
20th Nov 2020 09:48

I can relate to this completely, as I feel the same way. It does not help that things are constantly changing but I keep telling myself I am doing my best.

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By johnjenkins
20th Nov 2020 11:25

OK, the problem is a WORLD pandemic. Nothing is going to be "normal" stable for anyone. Things will be changing on, sometimes, a weekly basis. So there is no right or wrong solution. We just have to do what we do best and do it to the best of our ability. Everyone makes mistakes or put another way, nobody is perfect. The criteria is if you realise you've made a mistake, inform the client straight away and offer a solution. 95% of clients will understand.
As you get older confidence diminishes, so you have to change your modus operandi. Brexit is going to be another test of character for many of us.
Nick, I don't normally agree with these sort of articles but on this occasion I think you have captured the right scenario and offered a credible solution.

Thanks (1)
7om
By Tom 7000
20th Nov 2020 12:30

Very Good, I liked that Thank you.

My favourite bit

Most of the time, False Evidence Appearing Real (F.E.A.R) is the reason why we procrastinate, doubt ourselves and obsess about potential errors.

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