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Burn out

Take a break from your practice and client demands


After the year the profession has had, many accountants are craving a well-earned rest. Alistair Hayward-Wright talks taking a break in your practice.

9th Mar 2021
Community Assistant AccountingWEB
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It’s been an uphill battle for many during the course of the pandemic. Accountants have had to face the treadmill of furlough and government grants on top of Brexit and their normal workload, leading many to consider throwing in the towel to end the “relentless” pace of work.

“Christmas week was the first time in 11 years we shut as we had not had more than one day of last year due to lockdown and extra work,” member 0098087 told AccountingWEB.

Working non-stop to meet intense and demanding deadlines is unsustainable if it’s in a constant state; accountancy is no exception to this rule. Everyone, including accountants, should be taking breaks where they can to ensure they don’t reach the point of burn out where they become too exhausted to work.

Burn out

Burning out can be defined as ‘ruining one's health or becoming completely exhausted through overwork’.

In other words, becoming burned out means you’ve used up all the resources you have and are no longer able to give anything else as a result.

Burning out is recognised as something more intense than stress, for example. People often reach the point of burning out after prolonged periods of stress that haven’t been properly addressed.

“In my experience , the harmful mental and physical effects of the always on work culture are quite insidious,” commented AccountingWEB member killer33. “It is possible to cope with this pressure for many years without recognising or perhaps acknowledging the early warning signs of burnout, anxiety and depression. The cold which you can't quite fight off, or regularly waking up with an unexplained pain in the back are easily dismissed as just the norm for a busy professional.”

One of the most crucial ways of addressing this stress and preventing burnout is by allowing yourself time to take a break.

Communicating with clients

Alistair Hayward-Wright, MD of Hayward Wright, is a big advocate of taking breaks to avoid burnout and establish a proper work-life balance. 

“I’m very conscious of the sole practitioners. It is really difficult,” he told AccountingWEB. “But you’ve got to make that break and take that time off.”

For Hayward-Wright, the key is in the planning and preparation. Approaching clients a month or so in advance and informing them of what’s going to happen ensures that there won’t be any surprises. They’ll have time to adjust accordingly and they’ll be more likely to leave you alone during your time off.

“It’s all about transparency,” he commented. “Clients that don’t respect that, I’d argue you don’t want them as a client.”

“When you take a more relaxed approach to it and step back from it you start to see that. The clients that are more difficult over stuff like this probably aren’t taking breaks themselves.”

He explained that suggesting breaks to clients can even be a good icebreaker to introduce them to this way of thinking.

Planning your breaks around your workload, for example avoiding holiday at the end of the month, will also help in maintaining balance with your work commitments and time to yourself.

Hayward-Wright also recommends updating your clients to ensure they don’t forget your upcoming break.

Finding what works

Everyone will operate differently at work, and will therefore need to take different amounts of time out. Allow yourself the space to figure out what makes you work best, and what makes you want to come to work.

AccountingWEB member ArianBloodwood found that taking a week off every month worked perfectly for their practice: “I find I just have to otherwise I make mistakes and I'm constantly miserable,” they said. “Now I always have my break dates for the next 6 months up on my website. And a link to that page in my autoresponder during the break week.”

Checking your phone

Once you’ve organised time to have that break, controlling the urge to constantly check your phone for work updates or clients in crisis is crucial to the impact of your time out.

“We all need a complete break at some point, so my phone is completely off,” member gainsborough told AccountingWEB. “I won't check emails daily unless there is something urgent going on at the time (maybe a claim or return deadline).”

There are ways you can let your clients know when you will be back if they try to contact you, for example by changing your voicemail message or setting up an automatic reply on your emails.

Although switching off entirely might be unavoidable for some practices, creating that distance while you’re having a break is what’s going to ensure you reap the full benefits of your time away.

Hayward-Wright recommends getting the balance right. For him, switching off his phone entirely does more psychological harm than good: “I’m sitting there thinking, what if something’s gone wrong?”

To avoid this train of thought whilst maintaining distance on his breaks, he sets aside five or so minutes each morning to check if anything urgent has happened that needs attention. The rest of the day is then his to spend as he pleases, without having the distraction of worrying thoughts creeping in.

Making time

It can be daunting if you’ve never approached your clients and co-workers with the idea of taking regular breaks in your practice, but as we move towards a new way of remote and cloud-based working, it’s more important than ever to look after your work-life balance.

“You’re not productive or working at your best when you’ve been working for so long without that time away,” commented Hayward-Wright. “Breaks are incredibly important.”

Replies (11)

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By mkowl
09th Mar 2021 10:00

Can someone tell my clients !

Genuinely had one who questioned me taking time off as "you can't go anywhere and I need this for a CBILS application".

Thanks (1)
Replying to mkowl:
By Andy Reeves
09th Mar 2021 16:06

If a client said that to me, they would instantly be an ex-client.

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By memyself-eye
09th Mar 2021 11:15

I'm taking a break - a permanent one.
22 days to go.

Thanks (1)
Replying to memyself-eye:
09th Mar 2021 12:55

Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.

We're leaving forever
Its certain farewell.
And maybe we'll come back
To accounting, utter hell?

I guess there are clients to blame.
We'll see them around (see them around).
Will things ever be the same again?

It's the final countdown.
The final countdown.

Thanks (3)
By johnjenkins
09th Mar 2021 11:40

If there's no news, let's make something up. I'm sure Meghan and Harry need a well deserved rest.

Thanks (1)
Jennifer Adams
By Jennifer Adams
09th Mar 2021 11:46

Good article Tallula.

A week off at Christmas ... cant remember when I had one.

And especially not over the past months.

Some of my clients have had and are still having a bad time and I felt it was unfair to tell them to 'get lost' even for a few days when they were so worried.

I do draw a line at Sundays and try to finish at 6pm every day. I have to do the ironing at some time (and feed the cats!)

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By TaxTeddy
09th Mar 2021 14:25

As Jennifer says, you have to make time for yourself however you can. It's hard when you have a personal relationship with the clients (as we do) but I have found that clients can be more understanding than you might think.

For me, part of the solution was educating clients to understand that I was not available 24/7. Eventually I stopped using a mobile phone simply because I was receiving calls and texts at all hours of the day and night, which is not a good thing. After I got rid of the phone there were a few raised eyebrows but now clients know that they can email me any time or call during office hours, and they're fine with that. Killing the phone was a bit extreme but it had a very positive effect for me.

And, as we like to say in our office - "nobody died".

Thanks (0)
Replying to TaxTeddy:
By memyself-eye
09th Mar 2021 14:57

I don't have a mobile phone either - I'm following Prince Charles and not answering ANY of my children's phone calls!
(they only ever want my money........)

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Replying to memyself-eye:
By Hugo Fair
09th Mar 2021 19:55

You never give me your money
You only give me your funny paper
And in the middle of negotiations
You break down

I never give you my number
I only give you my situation
And in the middle of investigation
I break down

Thanks (1)
Replying to TaxTeddy:
By bendybod
06th Apr 2021 10:44

My work mobile has an off button for such purposes. I might answer it half an hour before I start work or up until around 6pm (although by then, I would probably look at who was ringing and let them leave a voicemail if I thought it was going to be a stressful call). I am extremely good at ignoring it at other times and even on my lunch break - they can leave a voicemail and if they have a problem with "sorry, you caught me on my lunch break" then so be it.
Equally, I may or may not take it on holiday with me so I can keep an eye on the bank accounts but it would most certainly live in the room safe and come out once a day at the most.
Anyone who has an issue with me taking holiday needs to think about what is going to make their accountant more effective and efficient in the longer term. If they've left it right to the last minute for a loan application etc and not even done me the decency of informing me that they're applying for one and may need some information then c'est la vie.

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By Ian McTernan CTA
10th Mar 2021 14:15

I've always worked between Xmas and New Year, it's one of my most productive periods.

Taking time off is easy. Just sort out your life/work balance.

If you can't find the time to have off, then you have taken on too much work/are very inefficient/have other issues.

Clients work on levels of expectation that you have built up- if they expect everything instantly and expect you to be available 24/7 then guess what? They will leave things until the last minute and expect you to be available to deal with it.

Just let clients know you will be taking a week or two off, and give them sufficient notice. Tell them you will be contactable for emergencies (if you are the only one that can deal with it) or tell them who to contact otherwise- and make it clear it had better be a REAL emergency, not just something they left until the last minute because they are used to you dealing with things that way. Missing a deadline due to them leaving it until the last minute is not an emergency!

My clients respect my time off- even if I am just on the golf course (the 'sorry I can't speak right now' button is very useful!) and they will generally send an email if they don't get through.

Train your clients and don't take on more work than you can comfortably handle whilst maintaining your life/work balance.

Oh it's after 2pm, that's enough work for me for the day:-)

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