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Accountants talk stress in the profession

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Whether it's battling with tricky clients or wrangling intense deadlines, accounting and stress go hand in hand, with pressure seen by many as part of the job. While the profession has made progress in addressing the issues this can cause, there is still more to be done.
 

4th Sep 2023
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With a profession as challenging as accountancy, stress comes with the job. Trapped between the complex nature of the job and the increasing demands of clients, all compounded by minuscule room for error, it's hardly unsurprising that more than half of UK accountants (55%) have admitted to feeling stressed and burned out while working in the profession. 

And it seems that AccountingWEB members are not immune to the stresses and strains of the profession, with commenters sharing their own experiences in a recent Any Answers post.

A stressful profession

While responses varied, with many arguing that stress was simply a fact of life, nearly all commenters agreed that stress was a significant factor in their line of work. 

For some, it seems that the intensity of hard deadlines in the profession creates the most headaches for accountants, with commenters lamenting self assessment season as a particular bugbear.

“You sound like you have the usual peaks and troughs of March year ends and then the self assessment tail-enders prior to the January filing deadline,” said ianthetaxman in reply to the original poster, summing up the feelings of many other users on the thread.

AccountingWEB contributor Glenn Martin also chimed in on the subject, noting that, on top of the usual stresses accountants face, the prospect of mounting fines can be worrisome.

“Everything we do carries a £100 fine if not done on time, multiply that by a few hundred clients and you are exposed to a lot of potential,” said Martin.

Making a change

Greenback Alan’s tax director Shona Barker agreed with many of the points made by the Any Answers community, with the “endless deadlines” and difficult clients putting pressure on her mental health.

“We’ve come to accept all these deadlines, both statutory and ones we put on ourselves, and it ends up meaning you're operating at the speed where we just have to keep doing stuff without end,” Barker said.

Looking to better understand mental health and support her colleagues, Barker spent three years training to become a mental health first aider, something which she admitted was both “gruelling and eye-opening.”

“Doing the course has made it easy for some people to want to approach me because I've had that training and I'm committed to the values that I genuinely want to support people,” Barker added.

More to be done?

Asked whether the profession does enough for those dealing with stress and burnout, Barker argued that accountancy has come a long way as more firms offer improved support for staff.

However, while progress has been made, Barker was keen to emphasise that more needs to be done, and that “more people need to put their hands up and say: ‘this is important to me.”

Offering advice to firms or colleagues looking for ways to better support their team, Barker said that compassion was the most important aspect and remembering “we’re all human.”

“Some of your staff will be going through various battles. So you need to ask yourself: do you want to support them so they can continue in that role and deliver, or just leave them to it? It's that simple.

“From a business point, unsupported staff will likely underperform. But, from a human point of view, we should all be showing compassion to each other’s issues.”

Listen to the latest AccountingWEBUK podcast where two firm owners reflect on the stresses of the profession. Click play in the box above or find the episode wherever you get your podcasts by searching for 'AccountingWEB'.

Reflection and support

For those dealing with stress and burnout, Barker advises reflection as a key aspect of making a positive change.

“I think it's always worth taking a step back after a particularly stressful period and reflecting on how you ended up there and asking: ‘how can I avoid being in the situation again?’ That might mean taking time to negotiate with clients or revisiting processes, but always take time to better understand the issues you're facing."

Barker also argued that the best tool to avoid these stressful situations in the future is to “lean on your peers” by accessing the accounting community. 

It’s important to remember you're not the only accountant going through this. Whether it’s in networking groups or LinkedIn or Facebook, you can always find somebody else who understands your situation.”

“Your capacity to deal with stress can change over time and that's completely okay. It’s just about putting in place the tools and support to help you through that matters most.”

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Mark Lee headshot 2023
By Mark Lee
04th Sep 2023 12:07

An important article with both valuable advice and confirmation that anyone feeling stressed is not alone. I have found, over the years, that many of the sole practitioners who approach me for support are feeling overwhelmed, frustrated and isolated - which can just be another way of expressing how stressed they are.

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By taxdigital
04th Sep 2023 13:02

Accountants and advisers are not buddhist monks sitting in a cave meditating that there is no stress. Of course there is stress: for those providing compliance services it will be about deadline management, for those providing advisory services it will be about missing some points, and then generally there wlll be AML, data protection etc to cause enough stress.

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Tornado
By Tornado
04th Sep 2023 14:47

"For some, it seems that the intensity of hard deadlines in the profession creates the most headaches for accountants"

This is going to get so much worse under MTD ITSA as many Accountants will find themselves unwittingly responsible for submitting hundreds of quarterly returns, mainly because their clients cannot or will not do this themselves. The chances of taking the rap for hundreds of penalties will be another severe headache that many will not be able to cope with. It is difficult enough getting VAT information on time and MTD ITSA will be so much more complex.

I am not going to put myself in that position, why should I. I think it is clearly a problem that HMRC will have to deal with, but as I have mentioned before, this is just one of the myriad reasons why MTD ITSA is already dead to me and is unlikely to ever happen as HMRC envisage, so I am not particularly worried by something that has zilch chance of happening, but others might be. I hope there will be enough Therapists to deal with the stress carnage that MTD will bring, and not just for Accountants and Book-Keepers, but their clients as well of course (and probably HMRC Staff). (Oh no I forgot, they just turn the phones off and don't answer letters to get away from stressful situations).

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By raju m
05th Sep 2023 11:34

HMRC staff have gone away for a few months to spend their big bonuses.!!!!!!!!!!

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By Trethi Teg
05th Sep 2023 08:06

Stress is going down a coal mine for 12 hours for 6 days a week and barely seeing sunlight for weeks on end in the winter, not to mention the dangers involved. There are many other similar jobs.

Sitting in an office, working on a computer, scheduling work and occasionally having to confront a difficult conversation is not my definition of stress.

We should realise what a privelaged, easy life accountants have.

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Replying to Trethi Teg:
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By johnjenkins
05th Sep 2023 09:33

If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchin.
I have been in the greatest (for me) profession for 49 years and every day is different.
No offence, Will and Lee, but I don't think this article should have seen light of day.

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By OrmeGoat
05th Sep 2023 09:37

I've been in the profession for about the same time and it isn't the same job nowadays.

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By johnjenkins
05th Sep 2023 09:52

I have to disagree. The job is the same it's the way that it is done varies. Admitted there are a few "add ons" namely AML, MTD. Most of the rest (e.g. RTI) just replaces what we have been doing differently. For me SA has been the biggest game changer. It's given us deadlines but we still have a bit of flexibility to put estimates in.

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By johnjenkins
07th Sep 2023 09:15

oops, call myself an Accountant. 59 years.

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Replying to Trethi Teg:
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By OrmeGoat
05th Sep 2023 09:34

Please may we have an Unthank button for posts like this.

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Replying to Trethi Teg:
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By Geoff56
05th Sep 2023 09:36

You make a very valid point about jobs that are back-breaking and dangerous. Those are problems that accountants should be grateful that they don't have to face.

However, stress is caused by many different things and for the accountant sitting in an office facing deadlines, an enormous workload, digital systems not working properly, ethical dilemmas, unreasonable clients, an intransigent HMRC and his/her own unhelpful professional body, all the while knowing they could be held personally liable if something goes wrong, the stresses are very, very real.

Just because it's a different kind of stress, let's not belittle it.

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By johnjenkins
05th Sep 2023 10:01

If you have an "enormous workload", then (I say this respectfully) you should seriously think about getting extra staff. However I do agree that HMRC are trying to put all their problems onto us.
The reason why some of us are stressed is because we love our profession and take everything personally. It is very difficult to become abstract when you are so involved with clients (to do your job properly you have to be). However there comes a time (I'm sure Mark will agree with me) when you just have to take a step back and look at your business and your life from above and say to yourself "what advice would I give to a client in this position".
Sermon over.

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Replying to Geoff56:
Tornado
By Tornado
05th Sep 2023 10:12

However, stress is caused by many different things and for the accountant sitting in an office facing deadlines, an enormous workload, digital systems not working properly, ethical dilemmas, unreasonable clients, an intransigent HMRC and his/her own unhelpful professional body, all the while knowing they could be held personally liable if something goes wrong, the stresses are very, very real.

In addition to all the things you mention, there is the added stress of dealing with a wide range of administrative burdens that can some days, take up most or all of my time preventing me from doing the urgent work that my clients require and for which I obtain my income from.

As you suggest, my professional body is churning out loads of 'helpful' information, mandatory surveys and endless webinars, but I am still waiting for an answer to a question I raised in an email very early in August and despite being told that I would receive an answer within three working days, I am still waiting for that answer. They clearly do not know the answer to my query either but rather than tell me this, they decide to do nothing.

We are all drowning in complex and largely unnecessary bureaucracy that few people fully understand and it will drag us all down in the end.

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Replying to Trethi Teg:
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By ansarmirza
05th Sep 2023 10:00

Regrettably, our stress monitoring system fails to distinguish between the immediate dangers of situations like being trapped in a coal mine or a dark cave and the anxiety associated with missing a deadline and facing potential consequences. The stress experienced when dealing with immediate threats like confronting a tiger or fleeing from it is transient; it either ends in survival or demise, and the stress subsides. However, operating in a consistently stressful environment can lead to cumulative effects. If one fails to address this prolonged stress, it may eventually become overwhelming.

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Replying to Trethi Teg:
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By HLB
05th Sep 2023 10:19

Having lost a brother-in-law to coal workers black lung in July when he was only 65 I have some sympathy in what you say. He always playfully ribbed me about my cushy desk job. But as far as stress was concerned he didn't consider his time in the mines stressful. On the contrary, he considered that job to be the best he had ever had. The camaraderie and support of his fellow workers helped take any stress away. In later life he worked in a school kitchen and found preparing lunch for a few hundred pupils far more stressful but only because of the increasing levels of bureaucracy and paperwork being required. And there lies the problem in this modern world that affects virtually all jobs. More and more regulation, more and more bloody paperwork. More and more stress. Grrrrrrr.

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By johnjenkins
05th Sep 2023 10:39

More regulation to stop the naughties, yet still more naughties than ever. The world is a scammers paradise. Why? because technology is lost on many so they aren't able to distinguish between regulation and scammers.
To sell a house you have to have your ID verified by a third party for insurance purposes. All to do with AML and it's over the top approach. Still doesn't stop the fraudsters when they hack into the software. Drugs are still readily available.

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By Marlinman
05th Sep 2023 10:02

I've been under no stress whatsoever since I became a sole practitioner. I encourage clients to get their accounts done as soon as possible after their year end so there's no pressure with deadlines and I can take a holiday whenever I feel like it. The internet has made life easy as I can work from almost anywhere in the world. The stress came when I was working for others who would leave things until the last minute.

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By Self-Employed and Happy
05th Sep 2023 10:38

Stress

One thing I can control, any clients that cause me stress or don't listen to us with regard to how we want things to be presented / timescales...then they are gone.

One thing I can't control, HMRC.

If they could actually sort HMRC out this would go back to being a very enjoyable profession, however having to deal with their incompetence on a daily basis has led to thoughts of packing up (genuinely), they consistently have a very negative impact on efficiency within the business and that's if they even bother to sort out problems in the first place.

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By johnjenkins
05th Sep 2023 10:45

It's not only HMRC. It's all big concerns including financial institutions. It really is time for a comprehensive re-think on how we want the future of our country to go.
Let's stop and consolidate with the technology we have (on a day to day basis not science and health) so that when we move on we are able to grasp what is happening.

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By 2TunTed
05th Sep 2023 11:34

Clients, even the best clients can be infuriating and they may need to be reminded from time that asking tomorrow for something needed yesterday is not not going to get the attention, if any, that it deserves. In my my experience the biggest cause of stress, across firms of all sizes, is taking on work that is best left for someone else. There's lots of work out there and the key thing is to do the work that you should be doing. We have all seen, junior partners particularly, taking on work because they feel pressured to do so. Targets, peer pressure etc.
Getting rid of your worst client every year does wonders for stress. Your profitability will improve too.

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By raju m
05th Sep 2023 11:46

I got rid of my worst clients last year. I have no clients left. Hooray I can retire!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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By mkowl
05th Sep 2023 11:54

Fair to say there have been very stressful moments in my practice. In the main this is when external pressures have impacted the staff and myself, parental bereavements, illness etc in particular. So taking time out, which was essential for all concerned, meant greater pressure on deadlines etc

It did create a re-think on our client base and identifying some that we have gone on to gently push away. Ironically we had quite a spate of new instructions, all via recommendations from existing clients so not quite freed up time as yet. And August which should be a quieter month then went a bit off piste with one off work for clients.

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By indomitable
05th Sep 2023 15:43

Personally I don't find accountancy in practice a particularly stressful occupation, try working in A&E! I think there is danger nowadays of exaggerating this. Talk to the war generation you will get a different perspective.

I personally think I am lucky being in practice, don't have to answer to a boss, can work from home if I like, don't have to commute, can work the hours I want, reasonably well paid, what's not to like?

Of course mental health is an issue but I do not think it's worse in the accounting profession, I think you are in one of the better industries/ professions.

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By Postingcomments
06th Sep 2023 15:25

"Will, Google Analytics says this weeks hot SEO words are 'stress' and 'mental health'....again. Please can you write a few words on it to fill up the site and so we appear in search ranking. Ta. I'll do yet another article going on about ChatGPT as that's still high ranking too."

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