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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.

24th Aug 2020
Editor AccountingWEB
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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.”

What now?

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

Replies (6)

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Georgia Duffee
By Georgia Duffee
25th Aug 2020 11:48

Fantastic article! I have just had two weeks off - despite a workload as I really needed to have a break. My stress was not being able to recruit like I normally would to support the larger workload. Covid of course meant we could not work in an office to train someone!

I am now preparing for the winter, and making sure there are watertight systems in place to take pressure off myself this tax season (and whatever the future may bring).

The next 12+ months will be the real challenge where we need to step up and support our clients through the recession.

Thank you and keep up the good work accountants! Please remember to take care of the biggest asset you own (yourself)!

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By johnjenkins
25th Aug 2020 12:00

That means 53% of those asked don't have problems. Accountancy has always been a challenging profession. We are the nurses, doctors and surgeons of the business world. So look at the stress levels the nurses, doctors and surgeons had to endure (and still are) during covid and we probably haven't fared too bad.

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Morph
By kevinringer
25th Aug 2020 13:28

For many of us our world revolves around 31 January. It is a Herculean challenge in a normal year with many of us working extended hours throughout January and earlier. I often work 17 hours a day every day of January: and I've not been taking it easy in the months leading up to January. But 2020 we've lost some months because of the support we've needed to supply (and continue to supply) to our clients. Yet 31 January deadline has not moved. How are we going to fit all our SA workload into 5 months instead of 10? It's not just a case of risking missing the SA deadline. Many of my clients are on Tax Credits and if that deadline is missed they've had it. This is going to be a massive challenge assuming everything is back to normal. But it is not normal. And what happens if there's an increase in cases as we go into autumn? And many of us have not had a break. I managed a few days away but had to take files and phone clients. Like most of us I won't be getting a 'proper' holiday this year. HMRC must relax 31 January deadline for SA and Tax Credits.

But despite the huge challenge that lays ahead I feel I am far more fortunate than so many other people.

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By Ian McTernan CTA
25th Aug 2020 13:45

The replies so far point out one thing: most have taken on as much work as possible and have no work/life balance.

I've managed to deal with the crisis and am expecting the usual mid- December to end of January workload. Which is fine with me as it's way too cold then to play golf!

Then again, I took the decision many years ago not to build up a practice with staff and to only have a certain number of clients to ensure I don't die an early death from the stresses that would have brought.

Use this opportunity to review your life and decide what you really want out of it- lots of money, big house big car and endless hours and stress and an early exit or less money, a moderate size house a decent car and a long easier life.

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By killer33
26th Aug 2020 10:01

I agree with everything Ian has written.

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By Cardigan
26th Aug 2020 14:27

I agree with Ian too. Although I sometimes suffer from pangs of regret as to what might have been had I pursued the high flying career. Other times I think it might have been more money, more problems.

It was a difficult few weeks in supporting clients, so many updates to keep track of, so many stories of businesses going under. But I didn't have to work weekends or work late into the night, thankfully, because the practice is of a manageable size. That's not to say I didn't wake up in a cold sweat some nights or suffered anxiety about what is going to happen to my loved ones and the world at large due to the pandemic.

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