Stress, burnout and Covid-19: Accountants' wellbeing hits rock bottom
The need to help everybody at the peak of the coronavirus was one reason why 47% of accountants rated their mental health bad or worse in AccountingWEB’s wellbeing pulse survey.
The combination of long hours, being overwhelmed by the coronavirus workload, and the stress of helping clients had a detrimental effect on accountants’ mental health and wellbeing. On a recent Any Answers Live webinar, 35% of attendees admitted that their mental health was bad due to the excessive coronavirus workload, while 12% said the barrage of government support initiatives left them burned out.
Fortunately, accountants have rebounded since the deluge of furlough claims and grants slowed and the immediate danger to clients’ businesses levelled out.
Now only 18% of respondents say their mental health is currently bad, while 5% feel burned out. With the lockdown easing and the summer months settling back into a sense of normality, 43% said their mental health is fair, while 29% went as far as saying they feel ‘good’.
Adrenaline rush to help clients
What caused this toll in the first place was the flood of official guidance, often announced late Friday evenings, combined with the always-on work culture and remote working. The panellists on the Any Answers Live webinar shared the pressures they had faced, and in the rush to help clients, these stories highlighted the importance of “putting your own oxygen mask on first”.
Webinar panellist Lucy Cohen, the founder of Mazuma, said the early period of the crisis was “very stressful”. Before she started to set boundaries, she was answering emails at 11pm. “I used to commute an hour each way to the office, so with the time saved, I felt like I had to be doing something constantly. I had this feeling that if I wasn't doing something I wasn't doing enough.”
Cohen described having the “anxious, burning momentum” that drove her during this time. Sharon Pocock, the founder of Kinder Pocock and a fellow guest on Any Answers Live, likened the period to an “adrenaline rush”.
Like many accountants, Pocock spent her evenings updating clients and other small businesses on her Facebook group, sending out mailshots or writing a daily blog. “It was really hard to switch off,” she said.
Rishi Sunak and burn out
Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s regularly announcements added to the stress accountants experienced. As soon as Sunak stepped away from the Downing Street podium, accountants were already fielding calls from clients looking for more information, which added more pressure to fill in the details on Rishi’s sketchy plans.
After blasting through the first CJRS and SEISS announcements, Pocock hit a wall. Following Sunak’s early June announcement on the second self-employed income support grant, she went online to write a blog and “it was like the adrenaline kind of wore off”.
Pocock had been working at a pace for some time. And while she kept nagging her team to take paid time off to recuperate, she carried on working. “I didn’t feel I could take any time off until they have booked their time off. It didn’t feel right. Why should I have time off?” she said.
Pocock did book a week off, but even then, she ended up working all the way through. But then came the “wake up call” when the long hours and excessive workload led to Pocock going down ill for days. She’s now having another week off and vowed to switch everything off this time.
Look after yourself
AccountingWEB’s resident agony uncle Nick Elston is a proponent of the “put your oxygen mask on first” advice. Listening to Lucy and Sharon on Any Answers Live, Elston recognised that people in the UK have a real problem: “We believe that self-care is selfish.”
He continued: “We feel guilty for having time to ourselves, especially in lockdown. It kind of feels that we need the courage to ask the people that we live with for time to ourselves to have that kind of space, and if we can have that kind of gap in our diary to recharge and recover and go again tomorrow.”
The wellbeing webinar pulse survey showed that accountants’ mental health is returning to manageable levels, but the panellists didn’t think we’ve escaped just yet.
“It was easier to advise people going into lockdown on things they needed to do and how we can help them with cutting costs and giving all that advice, but it's harder to advise people coming back because the guidance kept changing,” said Pocock.
“I also say to people, ‘This is the government guidance, but actually do what feels right. If you don’t feel safe opening... then don’t.’”
And while some sectors still face uncertainty, accountants themselves are now dealing with the challenges of motivation and adjusting to the new normal. “We’re still in this weird space, and there’s fatigue setting in and there’s no end in sight,” said Cohen. “There’s no normal to go back to. There’s no closure on this. I think that’s something that our team have struggled with most.”
If you've suffered from corona fatigue and are still looking to get your spark back, this wellbeing episode of Any Answers Live is now available to watch on-demand here.