How to spot and beat accountant burnout
When stress reaches boiling point, how do you battle your way out? Aimee Bateman shares her knowledge on combatting burnout.
Accounting has always been a demanding profession, even before the turmoil of 2020.
“Accountants are our go-to people,” said Careercake founder and CEO Amiee Bateman in the recent AccountingWEB Live webinar It's OK not to be OK. “Whether you’re working in public finance or in practice, you’re our go-to person when we don’t understand what's being communicated.”
As so many accountants know, the pandemic raised that pressure to another level, with ever-changing government guidance adding to the stresses on businesses and their hard-pressed advisers. Coming on top of a heavy year for compliance challenges, Covid-19 has pushed many practitioners to the brink of burnout.
What is burnout?
Bateman described burnout as the state that comes after stress - the step beyond, when you're so overwhelmed that your mind goes into survival mode and shuts down as a means of coping.
While stress is both internally and externally apparent, burnout is less recognisable. “Burnout is so dangerous because it’s what comes later, and it often goes completely unnoticed because the symptoms are the opposite of stress,” Bateman explained.
Burnout manifests in detachment and disengagement, which can be difficult to see in a person; they might even appear calmer in comparison to how they were operating in their high-stress state.
The treadmill of stress is unsustainable; the disengagement of burnout that can follow can pitch people into clinical depression.
If you’re already accustomed to or even thrive in a stressful environment, this can be even more dangerous, according to Bateman: “Some of us, like me, operate amazingly in stress. I’m so skilled when I’m in stress mode it’s unreal.”
Causes of burnout
While everyone has bad days (or even bad weeks), asking yourself if you’re experiencing these emotions more often than not is a good way of recognising when you might be becoming overwhelmed.
Bateman outlined three significant causes of burnout:
- Lifestyle: This stems from an overload of life responsibilities. You could be struggling with too much weight on your shoulders, for example working from home while simultaneously looking after your kids. You might struggle to find supportive relationships to juggle these responsibilities with.
- Work: You could be overstimulated in your job, which stems from taking on more than you can handle. Or, you could be understimulated, which is less commonly associated with burnout. This stems from feeling under challenged - you could be bored out of your mind in your job, which can cause you to feel unvalued. “It’s like a plant that’s not being watered,” described Bateman.
- Personality: Those high achievers might be able to relate to the feeling of putting too much pressure on yourself to succeed, but never reaching the mark. You might feel that no matter how well you do, it’s not good enough; perfectionism can cause you to beat yourself up until you’re intensely stressed.
Bateman reached the point of burnout through a combination of triggers: “It was my personality, because I’m my own worst enemy and it was also my work - I was overstimulated. I took four days of annual leave… It was ridiculous.”
On top of this pressure, people can internalise guilt from feeling they are more fortunate; this is especially apparent in businesses that are advising clients who are struggling.
“It’s a really unhealthy way to think. All you can think of when you’re feeling guilty is that what you’re doing means that you can add value to more people. People need you now more than ever,” said Bateman.
Invalidating your feelings can be even more damaging to burnout: “We’re all in the same storm but we’re in different boats. You can’t change it,” said Bateman. “There’s nothing that we can do that can change what's going on out there. The only thing we can do is change what’s going on in here.”
- Physical signs: Burnout can manifest in the body, eg aches and pains or headaches. You could constantly have a cold, or become very ill. You could also have a change in appetite, something that a lot of people might have experienced already with the hungers of lockdown. Bateman described this as “eating your feelings”, a craving that stems from wanting to compensate for a lack of joy. You might also feel extremely lethargic, or have trouble sleeping due to restlessness.
- Behavioural signs: Burnout can often make people tearful, and more prone to crying over little things. “One that people don’t talk about is forgetfulness,” said Bateman. This stems from the detachment that burnout brings; there is such a strong sense of disengagement that things become harder to properly take in. It can also make people overly-irritable; they might snap at others or become easily annoyed. “Think about it like sunburn,” Bateman explained. “If you touch the skin on your arm it doesn’t hurt, but if you’ve got sunburn and you touch it that does hurt - that’s what burnout is like.”
As burnout is a state of detachment, it can also cause people to isolate themselves; again, this is something that a lot of people will have struggled with as a result of social distancing.
In order to move away from burnout, Bateman recommends making changes that respond to the underlying factors in your life.
“Not a small change - a huge change,” she said. For example, taking a short walk to clear your head is a small change, but a big change would be shifting tasks off of your plate and onto somebody else’s, or asking your boss for something you can strive towards at work.
“It has to be something of magnitude for you to overcome that,” Bateman advised. “If you’re putting a plaster on something but not dealing with the issue, it’s not going anywhere. It’s going to come back, and when it does it’s going to be much harder to deal with.”
Learning to value your own self worth is a huge part of overcoming burnout, in or outside of work: “The best way to feel value is to give value,” said Bateman. “You will feel important again.”
Amiee Bateman’s extended People Matters session with Lucy Cohen on burnout breakdown is available to view on demand as part of our continuing AccountingWEB Live programming.