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Live Expo

Expo day 1: Set boundaries before burn out bites

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Saying 'no' is one of the hardest discussions you can have with a client. But after years of saying 'yes', accountants are burned out and tired. So, an AccountingWEB Live Expo session helped attendees get their day back under control. 

1st Dec 2021
Editor AccountingWEB
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After two years of Covid lockdowns and the looming prospect of tax return season, it was no surprise to see the theme of wellbeing take centre stage on Day One of AccountingWEB Live Expo. 

It started in the morning with a special Any Answers Live session on self assessment, where all the attendees said wellbeing and mental health was one of the big challenges they've faced throughout the pandemic and back into busy season. Later on in day one, Lucy Cohen hosted a session where further war stories and battle cries were shared with James Ashford and Jo Wood. 

Cohen has seen first hand how the always-on culture has creeped into the profession over the past 15 years - and the pandemic has only made this worse. 

‘Unofficial therapists’

“Accountants have become unofficial therapists for clients and I've seen first hand the toll it’s taken on my team,” said Cohen to kick off the session. “If you think about a qualified therapist, they need to go to a therapist… you’re not only hearing your clients problems, but you’re expected to solve them.” 

It’s a challenge all too familiar for the majority of the session’s attendees, with many confessing to have taken on extra non-chargeable work during the pandemic and feeling burned out after the never-ending Covid workload. 

Christmas alone

Cohen realised the need to set boundaries fairly early on in her practice, when they had grown rapidly and had taken on too much. And there she was, alone in the office,  while the rest of the staff were off for Christmas, trying to plough through year end accounts. “A christmas song came on and I cried - I didn’t feel festive at all,” said Cohen. 

“It was a make or break moment - I wasn’t going to give up another Christmas. Clients don’t care if you do this over Christmas - they just want it done.” 

But it’s a very easy trap to fall into, as Cohen explained. “It’s flattering when you’re asked to do things, but your bandwidth is finite. I realised I had to set boundaries and be more honest about what I can take on.”

Cutting time on hairdressers

The pandemic really tested accountants’ and bookkeepers’ boundaries. Around 80% of Jo Wood’s clientbase are hairdressers and under the lockdown rules these clients had a lot of time to talk.

Wood would hold 60 minute monthly check-ins with these clients and they could talk non-stop for that entire hour. “I felt drained at the end of the day,” she said. 

It’s then that she decided to implement some boundaries. She shortened her check-ins to 20 minutes and re-structured the calls so they were jam-packed with forecasting and cashflow advice.

This made her strict on her time and clients realised that they couldn’t afford an hour.

First step is learning to say 'no'

Many of the panel has been through moments of burn out. Ashford admitted that Sage’s recent acquisition of GoProposal was one of “the most intense periods of my entire life”. 

“In the last week I was up at 2.30am each day, but I knew there was an end to it.” And there's the rub - for many hitting breaking point, they might not see an end in sight. 

“It’s exhilarating spinning plates, but you cannot operate [like that] for very long,” said Cohen. “There is a reason you don’t sprint a marathon. So the first step in setting boundaries is learning to say 'no'.” 

So, identify what being on the brink of a burn out looks like for you and the coping mechanism you can bring in. Wood, for example, books off “an afternoon here and there” or “mini-breaks” before time off because “when I am in burnout and I have a break and stop, I get ill”. 

Boundary tips

So what are some ways you can bring boundaries into your practice and say ‘no’ to clients. First off, if you’re going to be upfront with your clients, Cohen said “don’t hide it in your Ts&Cs”. 

“Book in a meeting with each client and just say, I really appreciate you sticking with us and appreciated the support. I’m sure you understand I’m running a business too and understand what you’re getting for your money,” said Cohen.  

Of course, there is the concern of client push back or the fear of the client saying 'no'. But Cohen found that no one complained and some even said they needed more support and upgraded their package. 

Jo Wood uses calendly as a client boundary hack. She has reduced her business calls from 60mins to 20mins and now only sets her availability from Monday to Wednesday, which then allows her to spend the end of the week working on her business. “Decide what you want your week to look like and design your week around that,” said Wood.  

Cohen offered another Calendy hack: “Set the meeting at ten past the hour and that way you get extra time at the start and end of the hour.

What are you saying ‘Yes’ to?

Ashford hammered home the importance of saying 'no' to clients. “If you say ‘yes’ to a client and agree to extra work, you’re saying ‘no’ to a meal with your family or seeing your kid’s sports day. What is the bigger yes? It will be at the expense of something else.” 

He added, “When you kiss your loved ones good night, your clients are not thinking of you. Often we put clients at the centre of the universe, but you should be at the centre.” 

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AccountingWEB Live Expo is in the Coventry Building Society Arena on 1-2 December. 

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