Managing Director Beam Development & Training Ltd
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Increased Covid workload cranks up tax season stress

Accountants have provided round the clock help throughout the pandemic, but this desire to help clients has taken its toll on their stress levels. Lianne Weaver explains how to stay resilient with tax season just around the corner.

17th Nov 2020
Managing Director Beam Development & Training Ltd
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Pressure gauge

You are probably already feeling the self-assessment pressure along with the strain of helping your clients understand government legislation that you have barely had time to get your head around.

And now, the return of the CJRS (and JSS postponement) and SEISS guidance have left many accountants resigned to the fact that this year’s self-assessment season is going to another year of long working days and January blues.

For example, AccountingWEB reader Jimess claimed there is no hope for the “hard pressed tax agents who have already put in a huge amount of additional time this year and are now facing massively increased working hours”.

This comes at a time when AccountingWEB readers have usually “recharged and are ready to tackle the ramp up to January”.

In whatever way 2020 has affected you, each and every one of us are likely to have experienced some degree of stress this year.

You may have been feeling overwhelmed from the intensity of client demands, and you could be struggling to tackle the challenges. Rest assured that this is normal when we are experiencing increased stress.

The primitive problem

When we are stressed, a signal is sent to our brain and reaches a part called the limbic region. Neuroscientists say that this is the most primitive part of the brain - it has not really evolved for tens of thousands of years. We are still dealing with the same hardware that our cave-dwelling ancestors would have worked with; your safety and survival is the principal concern of this part.

Thousands of years ago, our physical safety was under daily threat; whether we were at risk of being poisoned by some fatal berries or being chased by a wild animal, we needed to be on constant alert for anything which could potentially harm us.

Perception is everything - the way that we see things triggers our reactions. So if we perceive a threat, we will react in the same way as we would to a real and physical threat. Our body automatically reacts to the emotional threat as if it were an animal chasing us - the limbic system prepares us to respond.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with deadlines and demands, your brain exhibits the four Fs of stress.

The four Fs of stress

  • FREEZE: One of our most common responses to stress is to freeze in the hope that the danger goes away. With emotional stress, this can be shown through procrastination.
  • FLIGHT: We may experience the urge to run away from stress - taking the day off work or avoiding client calls. 
  • FIGHT: We might want to fight our way out of stress - you may experience this by having arguments with loved ones or being overly-irritated at work.
  • FAWN: This is the lesser known stress response, but commonly the most socially acceptable. In primitive times, fight-mode was sometimes a pointless response to bigger, stronger dangers, so we consequently learned to fawn. This submissive and compromising behaviour placated the situation - today, this is better known as people pleasing.

If you recognise that you’re increasingly experiencing these behaviours, please remember that this is likely to be a stress response – a warning signal from your brain that stress levels are increasing and action is needed. Furthermore, acknowledging these behaviours in yourself allows you to recognise when a colleague or friend is exhibiting signs of stress.

How to reduce the stress response?

  • Take a deep breath: Our brain constantly monitors our breathing and when we are emotionally stressed we react by breathing short, rapid, and shallow, in order to get more oxygen to the brain and muscles. The stress reaction triggers the limbic region and increases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Simply controlling your breath can reduce this and allow your brain to calm and consider a response. Breathwork expert Ed Harrold found that our brain receives these stress signals if we take more than just 10 breaths per minute. A Harvard Review study found that just 60 seconds of deep, focussed breathing was enough to completely rid the bloodstream of cortisol.
    • Try this simple exercise throughout the day:
      • Take in a slow, deep breath through the nose for six seconds
      • Hold it for two seconds
      • Slowly release it for eight seconds
      • Repeat at least six times 
  • “I am safe”: As simple as it sounds, studies have shown that telling ourselves we are safe calms the stress response. Silently, in your head, repeat “I am safe” whenever you feel stress increasing.
  • Talk: Talking to someone you trust can help you get perspective of your worries. Don’t be afraid to reach out to those around you for support.

At this point in the year, it is likely that we are experiencing very intense levels of stress - please know that you are not alone, and that there is always help available if you are struggling.

For more useful tips on mental wellbeing support in the workplace and how to build resilience, watch the webinar with Eugene Farrell, Mental Health Lead at AXA Health.

Replies (7)

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By Gary Copland
24th Nov 2020 10:07

Interesting article. I wasn't really aware that I was feeling stressed about my workload, just put it down to strange times we are living in at the moment. However having read this I recognised that I do actually exhibit some of the F signs. Thanks for this information, it's always helpful to be able to see the signs so that you take a step back and tackle the problem.

Thanks (1)
By unclejoe
24th Nov 2020 10:22

30 years ago I was in a job that was incredibly stressful, but I could not see it. It was only after I had left the job that I saw what it was doing to me; it could have killed me. If you see the signs in colleagues, if you can, extend the hand of friendship to them. How colleagues respond can make all the difference. You may literally save a life. Thank you.

Thanks (2)
Replying to unclejoe:
By Gary Copland
24th Nov 2020 11:01

Happened to me 22 years ago, never saw it coming. Thought I was more attuned these days, just shows how it can creep up on you.

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By North East Accountant
24th Nov 2020 12:39

Good piece and very helpful.

Dealing with the 4 F's of stress can also be helped by using a fifth F combined with off or just saying no more often

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By Ian McTernan CTA
24th Nov 2020 12:49

I'm not stressed. Because when I started this profession, I knew there would be a busy period between now and the end of January- it comes with the job. You should be prepared for it- it's not like it's any kind of shock that it's the busiest period of the year!

Will I be working long days in January- yes. Probably won't have a day off in January. But that is the trade off for being able to play golf 3 times a week in summer.

If you don't think you will be able to service the number of clients you have, seek help now, don't leave it until it's too late.

Also, manage client expectations: tell them if they leave it until January to supply information it may not be done in time and they will face a late filing penalty. If you're really struggling, then tell them you might need to charge extra to cover overtime for staff as a result of all the additional support you offered clients with JRS, etc or just as a result of additional costs this year.

Best way of reducing stress- reduce your client base to something you can comfortably manage rather than as many as possible. It's really a decision between work/life balance- deal with that and you'll have a more relaxed life. You might not make quite as much money but your life will be richer and you might even live longer.

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By elainea
24th Nov 2020 13:51

I think we are all used to and accept the normal stresses of tax return season but the additional workload trying to assist clients with Covid related issues and our own personal anxieties around the pandemic are adding a great deal of pressure. I would recognise the symptoms of stress being described in my behaviour, but like many others as a sole practitioner with no employees the buck stops with me and I just have to get on with it. Roll on 31st Janaury 2021! I wonder how many others are like me. I think this will be the last time I am prepared to go through this and will probably wind up my practice next year.

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By Mr J Andrews
24th Nov 2020 14:00

........Tax season around the corner......?? I think I would be 4effing stretched if confining my workload to a season. Come full implementation of MTD I'll probably need 5effing seasons to cope.

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