Emails have blurred work-life balance

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Accountants’ commitment to providing support and value to clients has backfired – the constant flow of emails has caused strain on their work-life balance. Richard Hattersley investigates how accountants can stop out of hour emails from ruining their lives.

As AccountingWEB member wilcoskip approaches his 20 year work anniversary he revealed on Any Answers that he's had enough. He wants out. But this career change is not primarily driven by the profession, per se. Sure, he admits to having a few wobbles in the past but he’s always managed to shake them off. But not this time.

The reason behind wilcoskip wanting out is a common issue: there’s too much change. Namely, it’s the constant stream of emails and being on constant call. It’s wearing him down. “I'm addicted in the sense that I can't leave my phone alone and can't stop thinking about incoming messages, so have to answer them,” he wrote on Any Answers. His dream is a simple one: One day he will wake up knowing that nobody will chase him for anything.

Email addiction

He’s not the only one. AccountingWEB regular FirstTab took to Any Answers to confess his email addiction. As soon as an email lands in his inbox, he’d fire off a response, even after hours.

The management of emails is a pertinent subject at this time of year. When so much attention and efforts are spent mining away at tax returns, responding to incoming emails - especially when it involves chasing errant clients - is a necessary but time-consuming evil.

And even the time wasted just filing emails makes a dispiriting read. Rod Voyce, founder of Logical Office, said “People don't realise that filing for 10 minutes a day equals 37 hours a year which is one week of your time." He added: “If you're spending half an hour a day, that's three weeks of wasted time.”

The issue of email burnout has prompted France to usher in the ‘right to disconnect’ employment law. As reported in The Guardian, from 1 January French employers with more than 50 workers will have to create a good conduct agreement, preventing staff from checking out of hours emails. The initiative was introduced by Myriam El Khomri who wanted to tackle the health impact of “info-obesity”.

Burnout kicks in

But accountants could be the ones to blame for their 'always-on' work culture. The accountants coach Carol McLachlan says every time you respond to a client out of hours you create an expectation. “You are confirming that your door is open 24/7,” she said. “You signal that there are indeed no boundaries here and your client responds accordingly.”

With the barriers no longer there and the border between life and work disappears, McLachlan warns that this leads to accountants being “permanently switched on”. Not only will this email attachment affect your work-life balance but its effects are stark on your wellbeing. “How long can that last?” McLachlan asked. “Pretty much until the battery runs down, or in human terms: Burnout kicks in.”

Some firms, though, are making changes to their email etiquette, without damaging client commitment. Practice Excellence-award winners Raffingers knew that it needed to guarantee client callbacks if it was going to build trust with clients. They’d found through talking with businesses that other accountants didn’t return clients emails or call back. Often, the businesses didn’t even know if their accountant had received an inquiry.

Lauren Aston, Raffingers’ marketing manager, told AccountingWEB that everyone in the firm bought into the commitment. “It's not necessarily that if someone contacts them with a question they've got to answer that question straight away,” she said. “It's acknowledging that call.”

Just acknowledge the email

Raffingers realise that although every email may warrant a response not every email needs an immediate, out of hours reply. “It's more to keep our clients up-to-date,” said Aston. “And to make sure, if our people can't answer our questions there and then, to make sure they've acknowledged it.”

Knowing you’ve acknowledged your client’s request should reduce the intrusion emails can command on your private lives, once you’ve logged off.

Back on Any Answers, AccountingWEB member Brunel admitted to writing replies out of hours, but he refrains from hitting the send button. “[It’s] so best to introduce some time delay and train clients to batch up questions,” Brunel said.

And while Duggimon sometimes bends to the temptation and read emails, he’d rarely respond. “It's never actually occurred to me that any of them might expect a response there and then, they're just emailing me when it's convenient for them and I respond in kind,” he said.

Meanwhile FirstTab is dabbling with an out of office responder. As for wilcoskip, his decision has been a long time coming: “The world is moving,” he said, “and I can't be bothered to keep up anymore.”

Are you a slave to your email? How do you ensure your work-life balance is not compromised by the constant bing from your emails? 

About Richard Hattersley

Richard Hattersley

Richard is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.

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27th Jan 2017 10:26

I think we all spend up to 40mins each day answering emails, complete waste of time.

Some people love to send emails, mainly because they are lazy folk who cannot get out of a chair, happy for others to do all the running around and solve problems. Also a lot of them are about covering yourself.... mind you i do a fair bit of that, emailing HMRC guidance to clients ect.

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to AndrewV12
27th Jan 2017 10:35

AndrewV12 wrote:
I think we all spend up to 40mins each day answering emails

I wish it was only 40 minutes a day. That would be a very quiet day indeed for me!
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By qadri23
27th Jan 2017 10:31

Good article, I have a simple solution, auto response to say, " I will respond to you within 48 hrs"

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By kjd
27th Jan 2017 10:39

I haven't even got time to read this all but on Weds night (Thurs morn) I emailed one client at 2am and another at 3am - both replied inside 5 mins and we ended up having a back and forth convo...might as well have just called them in the end!!

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27th Jan 2017 10:59

Do one important priority everyday before you check your email, works wonders.

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27th Jan 2017 12:02

I've learned to disconnect from work as I work from home.

It's really quite easy. Train clients not to expect instant responses 'out of hours' and to only call if it's an emergency at the weekend.

If they call at 8pm on a Friday night then unless they are telling you they are down the road in the pub and do you fancy a beer (glass of red!) then my response is usually 'call me back Monday'.

Clients soon realise that just because they have left something to the last minute doesn't mean you will drop everything to get it done (you might, but that's your choice).

Ditch clients who expect you to be on call 24 hours a day - or charge them appropriately!!

I'm probably not a good example as I tend to work parts of the weekend and have parts of the week off. Wednesday afternoon I'm on the golf course when it's warmer.

Obviously if you run your own firm then sometimes you need to be flexible, but if you are an employee make sure you draw the line somewhere.

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27th Jan 2017 13:02

True.

But it also helps to Spam-filter clickbait articles that turn up on 27 January!

Physician heal thyself!

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27th Jan 2017 13:09

The biggest complaint I have is non-client emails, or organisations bombarding me, I try and block or opt-out as much as I can. I like receiving client emails in the main, especially this time of year and usually respond in quick time. I admit I am lousy at work -work balance, I mean work-life balance. We are encouraged for our businesses to join social media, facebook, twitter etc etc, but surely that will just add to more down time . I thought faxes were the end. From 1 February 2017 come the revolution I will be re-evaluating this. Enjoyed reading the comments above. Good article.

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By svend
27th Jan 2017 13:30

No single solution to this problem and so some of the suggestions below may help. We tried to find a solution that would not allow any external person to be able to send an email "to" more than a single person in a firm but could not find one. Our clients are very fond of sending "to" two or more people in our firm on the same email. This drives us mad as well as it being expensive for our firm. Would anyone send the same letter to three people in the same firm by post? of course not, but email allows it and apparently Microsoft exchange does not have a way to not allow it? I find that remarkable but I am told it's not sound logic from a software perspective, whatever that means. By chance has anyone found a way in Office 365 (MS Exchange) to only allow incoming external email to be sent "to" a single person in a firm and not allow it to be sent "to" more than one person? If preventing it to be cc'd to someone in the same firm was also an option, we would use it. A solution to this would likely decrease unnecessary emails coming into our firm by 20%.... a massive saving.

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27th Jan 2017 14:32

Clients soon stop this pesky habit once they faint when they receive their annual fees bill!

WE charge for all "Disbursements":, plus extra client service time.

What clients seem to blissfully ignore when they pester their professional adviser with endless emails and telephone calls and texts (for the select few who have my mobile number!), is that as with any lawyer, "Conference Time" means in person, by telephone and "Correspondence", today, includes emails as well as letters.

It is al about billing time nothing more and nothing less.

You may well be happy to work gratis: I am certainly not!

In my own- now circa 40 years - of practising experience, the clients who turn into a ghost and haunt you, are the very same clients you need urgently to consign to that magic place of sanity, B1N!

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27th Jan 2017 15:28

I have suffered "burnout" from constant emails. It then passes on an inability for me to switch off from the sender.

Having learnt the painful way and taking months of recovery from a serious depressive episode (once called a nervous breakdown), I switch off all business related notifications after work time when I lock up and leave the office. Even if you work from home, the time you lock up the shed/spare bedroom or other workspace, this can still be done. I reply within the next working hours/days. If you answer clients at weekends and evenings, they will treat you as a permanent out-of-hours service and you're forever on call. Not anymore.

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27th Jan 2017 16:27

I generally look at my e-mails once a day and reply where appropriate. However, i never answer e-mails or take phone calls out of office hours.

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27th Jan 2017 18:52

I understand the problem ,however I am old school opening the mail every morning and working through it.
In my opinion email is no different,first thing print out all emails and deal with accordingly . It is misleading to think that an instant response is required unless marked urgent.

Technology prays on the psychology of the mind

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27th Jan 2017 20:30

I'm dealing with the email invasion by a) not switching on my laptop at weekends and b) only using webmail instead of Outlook so that I have to make an effort to access emails, and my phone is completely out of bounds to emails. I would rather speak to people. I often find that if a customer sends a text or email asking for extra information or they've lost something, they usually find it themselves if I say I'm unable to deal with it tomorrow.

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28th Jan 2017 11:36

Lots of opinions on how bad emails are but that's probably a reflection of misuse of a business tool rather than how bad emails are (literally shooting the messanger?)

Emails when used properly are of great benefit in passing information to multiple people (responses not required) or transferring large quantities of data instantly. Having started in business pre-fax some of you don't know how lucky you are...

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29th Jan 2017 13:27

If wishes could come true I wound not uninvent the bomb I would cheerfully uninvent the mobile 'phone and e:mail!

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31st Jan 2017 05:36

Here are some of the procedures we do with our email. Not sure if it helps anyone. I used to stress quite a lot. I hope some of it helps.

1 Be clear with your clients about email correspondence.

2 If I know I am not going to answer it immediately I let the customer know.

3 I have as many templates in my emails as possible for different scenarios, so I am not retyping but always input their name and add a bit as I do not like generic emails. I use quick text as well in EMClient which is also like a template. Not sure if outlook has it. but it will have templates somewhere.

4 If the client is always emailing, I will organize a meeting as sometimes they are new and it is a trust issue. I find a meeting settles them down and you then find they email less.

5 Only use out of office if it is important as it becomes very annoying to a client to get out of office responses. I had one supplier that every time they emailed they were out of office; it became very annoying dealing with all their out of office emails.

6) I use the software Emclient to deal with my emails. It allows you to create a task from the email or a meeting, so I am not retyping setting up the task to do, EM Client Agenda and contacts side panel is perfect for pulling info from Email jointly - Tasks and Calendar and appears on the same screen as your email on one tab. It puts a client's emails in a tab so you can scroll down without opening full email quickly and all the attachments in a separate tab so you can spot a document easily.

7) Keep your inbox exceptionally tidy, set up a task, event or meeting on reading and put the email into the client folder. Delete and tidy up email each day.

8 Use Rules for what happens to an email when it comes in.

9 Use Applets like IFTT https://ifttt.com/ to save attachments to Dropbox, for example, saves a lot of time saving PDFs

10 Do not use your inbox as a thing to do box. Otherwise, your email becomes overwhelming.

11 Have a good collaboration system where the customer can see their files, Returns, Payrolls extra, It reduces their need to emails asking for a copy of an item. If they need a copy, they will get used to using that system to see their document.

12 I do set a time for the email to be sent now if it is out of hours.

13 I have a separate email for newsletters- networking events signing up for something. I put this on Thunderbird Mozeriila and look at them when I have time. It keeps these emails away from my important client emails so that is is easier to focus.

14 I paid for the professional licence of Grammarly which has helped me a lot compose emails, in shorter and more precise manner. It proofreads your emails and suggests better ways to write a sentence, so it is understood. Grammarly has saved me hours, and it was worth every penny. I used to stress considerably sending emails, and I would see mistakes after sending no matter how many times I had checked on the screen.

Finally, I have a lot of customers who text as well, and sometimes that is just because that is the way they work. I quite like texting. I use Iexplorer Macroplant https://macroplant.com/iexplorer to save all text threads in a Pdf format which is stored in the client file. Iexplorer exports my voicemails and phone lists as well, handy for when clients do not answer but you show them proof of contact.

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to sarah douglas
30th Jan 2017 09:38

Thank you for sharing this, Sarah! If I could thank twice, I would.

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30th Jan 2017 10:29

Thanks Richard much appreciated

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31st Jan 2017 00:07

Yes Sarah, some great ideas!

The best think I ever did was turn off the Outlook notifications on my iPhone. I can log in if I want to, but I won't know if someone emailed me unless I open the app.

I work a LOT as is it, and I resented "just" starting to finally switch off and relax on a Sunday afternoon and an email would ping through... Sod's law, always one of those that stresses you a little! Now, if I'm not at my desk, I'm either on site (on another clients time) or I'm off the clock and on my own time.

I did have a client who would text me at 8pm on a Sunday, so I just answered by email next morning and politely asked them to use my email out of hours. Took a few attempts but I think they got it, eventually.

I love the idea of automated "send" times so that everything is during office hours. But usually, if I'm working in the evening, the client is able to reply there and then, so I can actually get something done quicker... though as said above, it can lead to expectation.

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