Switching off when you’re always on
Even before the pandemic hit and turned our worlds upside down, the ‘always on’ culture was starting to become the ‘new normal’ in the accounting profession.
No longer just the domain of the Big Four and the overworked trainees who learned that way of life as they rose through the ranks, the uptake of new technology and smartphones has meant that, even for smaller practices and sole practitioners, work is never further away than glancing at that little device in your hand.
Then throw in the advent of social media and the instant response and gratification mindset. Clients and consumers have become accustomed to receiving information and responses almost immediately. Trying to keep up with that expectation can leave accountants feeling overwhelmed and stressed out.
The situation certainly has not improved now that so many of us are working from home. The lines between work time and personal time seem irrevocably blurred. And, when clients know that you’re working from home and have your laptop to hand, they seem a little more comfortable asking for a sneaky bit of out of hours support.
It’s all very understandable. Small businesses have been hammered by the pandemic and the various lockdowns and tiers. Accountants have been the superheroes who have helped them through by navigating the labyrinth of available support.
Accountants have shown incredible resilience during this time, a quality that Eugene Farrell, mental health lead for AXA Health, talks about as key during his webinar on ways to improve resilience in the workplace.
Farrell explains that we all have innate resilience, but that it is “not consistent” and that it is “not reliable”. Likewise, your resilience can change over time and can wane during extended periods of stress.
An unhappy, stressed out accountant is probably not as good an accountant as they ought to be. If you’re feeling that you’re ‘always on’, let’s look at some ways that you can learn to switch off to look after your mental and physical health. You and your practice will reap the rewards
Define your space
Working and living in the same place all the time can quite easily lead to blurred lines and a lack of boundaries between you and your laptop. If you have the space, try to have your work area in a separate room to the one that you relax in. If you have limited space then you could try sitting in a different part of the room to the space you watch TV or chill out. Making a clear designated work space can help you step away from your ‘office’ and let you create some mental, if not necessarily physical, distance.
If you are using a shared space it can really help to put your laptop and work materials away at the end of the day. Have a box that you pack into, put it all into a cupboard or another room. Closing it all down and putting it away is akin to leaving the office, and increases the separation between home and work. It also reduces the temptation to have a quick look at emails late at night.
Manage your clients’ expectations
One of my favourite coping mechanisms is setting boundaries. That applies in all areas of life, but is really important if you’re running a practice. Tell your clients your standard response times to calls and emails (one day, four hours etc) and stick to them.
Let them know that you don’t answer emails after 4pm or before 10am, or whatever works for you. If they know that, and you stick to your rules, you’re giving yourself permission to close your email down when you need to, or to switch off the phone. And, if an email pops up at 3:59pm that you just want to clear before you clock off on a Friday, use a delay delivery function to make sure that it doesn’t arrive in your client’s inbox before you want it to. That way your inbox is clear and you’ve still managed your client’s expectations.
Mute is your friend!
Now that we’ve all had to find ways to replace face to face interactions, my WhatsApp and Slack notifications seem to have gone into high gear. Maybe like me you’re a member of various WhatsApp groups, some work-related and some personal. Or maybe you’ve used a messaging app to create a team culture with your colleagues. However you use them, the notifications from various apps can feel like yet another intrusion in your already busy day, and their incessant pings can seep into your personal time.
Thankfully, most apps have a mute function that you can set for an hour, a day, a week or indefinitely. You can also use the settings in your smartphone to switch off notifications entirely.
Apply the same principle to emails and other desktop applications - switch off any pop up notifications so that you only see new notifications when you enter the app. That way you won’t feel like you’re being harassed by pop ups when you’re trying to concentrate on something else.
Make sure that you’re showing your body the respect it deserves. This ranges from ensuring your work seating won’t give you a bad back and that your screen lighting won’t leave you with a headache from squinting, right through to getting your heart rate up and a bit of blood pumping through your veins. Spend a little bit of time checking in with yourself and seeing how you feel physically, making sure that you pay attention to common complaint areas like your back and neck.
Jan Vickery, head of clinical services at AXA Health, explains the importance of correct posture and how to prevent aches and pains when working from home. Even if you don’t have a chair with back support, there are simple hacks you can deploy.
Jan describes how you can create a makeshift back support by “folding a towel in half and rolling it up to create a roll that you can place into your lumbar arch.” A simple solution to a very common problem.
Keeping your posture healthy will undoubtedly help prevent common aches and pains and let you enjoy other physical activities that can help you create a great balance in your working day.
Something simple like getting out for a brisk lunchtime walk or doing an online yoga class for 30 minutes can make the world of difference to your physical and mental wellbeing. They both also allow you the opportunity to take structured time away from your desk and allow your brain to recharge.
Speaking of recharging – don’t underestimate the importance of sleep. Getting adequate amounts of good quality sleep is vital for your physical and mental health. It’s worth investing some time into understanding and improving your sleep hygiene to ensure that you can face the challenges of the day.
Break it down
We’ve probably all been told to break tasks down into manageable smaller tasks, but sometimes when you’re under pressure that in itself can feel like a herculean effort. Instead, I find that it’s more useful to put my activities into categories and work through them in sequence.
For example, I have three categories of work – big, medium and small.
A big task is something that will take over an hour but less than half a day. Anything that will take over half a day gets broken down into numerous big tasks.
I do one big task first thing in the morning when I am fresh and have had my coffee. I haven’t been bogged down with other distractions from the day yet and getting a big thing done first makes me feel productive.
Then I tackle my medium tasks. Medium tasks take less than 45 minutes. I do 3 of those a day.
Finally, I clear off my small tasks. Small tasks all take less than 10 minutes but tend to be those annoying little emails and admin jobs that pile up in our inbox. I clear through those in the last hours of my working day so I finish on a high. It’s a really good feeling to have rattled through numerous tasks in the latter part of the day and helps me switch off because I’ve made a visible dent in my workload.
Of course, depending on your working hours and patterns, you can tackle them in whichever way suits you best, but the above works really well for me in creating additional bandwidth in my busy brain.
Give yourself permission
My final advice would be to learn to give yourself permission to switch off. It’s not a luxury to have time for yourself, it’s an absolute necessity to keep you healthy and happy. Hopefully the tips above will give you the tools to create that permission. Your brain and your business will thank you for it!
|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.|