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Sole practitioners: No accountant is an island

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The unique challenges of working in practice are often compounded by working alone. How do sole practitioners safeguard their mental health when working in isolation?

20th Feb 2023
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For those working as a sole practitioner or in a small firm, loneliness has likely become a well-trodden topic of discussion, especially with working from home becoming so prevalent. This was something that Louise Herrington understood all too well when reviewing January with the AccountingWEB team on a recent episode of No Accounting for Taste.

“All of the people I’ve spoken to have found [self assessment season] tough,” Herrington said. “As a sole practitioner, I have to do everything – it’s all down to me. Even for small things, I still have to find the time to do it.”

The issue was later posed to Samantha Mitcham on our recent episode Any Answers Live, who sympathised with Herrington and her fellow sole practitioners.

“I totally agree that [sole practice] can be a lonely place. I certainly found that was the case in 2019/2020 when I was still a very new practice and I didn’t have staff at that point. I really was doing it on my own,” Mitcham said. 

And while Mitcham has now grown her practice to include two members of staff, the advent of remote working has ensured that isolation has remained a thorn in Mitcham’s side, with her admitting “it can still be a very lonely place.”

Only the lonely

Yet, while the road of the sole practitioner can often be a lonely one, both Mitcham and Herrington spoke of how investing in the wider accounting community and supporting other practitioners, especially during high-intensity periods such as self assessment season, has helped them stay connected.

For Herrington, a weekly 15-minute call with her fellow musician accountants has been invaluable for her mental health and has allowed her to check in on her colleagues during crunch periods. “We do a sort of a sanity call once a week when we can just make sure everyone’s okay, still hanging in there and haven’t committed hara-kiri,” Herrington quipped.

“But I think that the support network is quite important for those sole practitioners who don’t have anyone to bounce things off of. And that’s what I found quite invaluable. It might only be a 15-minute moan, but it does a lot for the mental health of the practitioner who’s struggling on their own.”

Mitcham also had found solidarity in connecting with her fellow sole practitioners and smaller accountant firms. Aside from being an active and engaged user on LinkedIn, Mitcham said that being a part of WhatsApp groups, as well the wider accounting community, had been extremely helpful. “I'm very, very grateful for the community that’s been built, even just within accountancy in general.

“Whether it’s the huge WhatsApp groups that many of us are part of, or the chats with one or two close friends who are also running a practice, I think it is very important for people who are in our position as sole practitioners or very small practices to find their community.”

Mitcham also noted that such groups, while scratching the social itch, have also become substitutes for the in-person communication and collaboration that was lost due to remote working. 

“There’s also the aspect of leaning on each other. I’ve asked real technical queries in these communities, as I’m missing that person in the office that you used to turn around to and say: ‘Can I run this past you’?” Mitcham said. 

“That’s one side of the beauty of the community, but the other side to it is just sending a quick message and saying: ‘I’m having the worst day ever’.”

Alone again (happily)

Interestingly, when posed a similar question, the Any Answers community leaned significantly towards the positives of working alone, with many users finding little to no issue with going solo.

“I’m still old school and simply feel that, as an old mate told me years ago, ‘If you're not comfortable with your own company for prolonged periods then don’t go into business on your own,” wrote AA regular Hugo Fair. Fellow veteran Mr Hankey penned a similarly positive comment about their experience working from home: “I work on my own, from home, and spend prolonged periods not seeing anyone. Some people ask if it drives me mad, but it’s quite the opposite, I love it. My cats pop into the room now and again to check I’m okay, which is a nice touch. Feline company is preferable to humans.”

And while Mitcham conceded there were negative aspects to working as a sole practitioner or a small firm, she too seemed content in her decision to step away from the high pressure of working in a large firm. “[During January] I remember the partners running around and swearing at each other and in the back of my head all I could think was: ‘I don’t want to be that partner in a larger firm if my firm gets to that stage’,” Mitcham said, adding how, although stress is still a factor, she can better control it as a sole practitioner. “From a mindset point of view, I perhaps take a lot of stress on, but that’s so I can control it and see where I’m feeling the pressure in order to not pass that onto staff in the future.

“It feels very different feeling the stress while running my own practice to what it did when I was working in practice and feeling that stress for somebody else.”

Replies (11)

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By Winnie Wiggleroom
20th Feb 2023 10:00

unless his name is Madagascar

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By ABC12
20th Feb 2023 11:53

Bliss working by myself, no interruptions, no banal office chat, go for a break when I want, days off when I want.

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By Homeworker
20th Feb 2023 13:15

I went on my own in 1996, when SA started, and although my husband joined me several years later (as junior partner, as he is not a tax person) I never regretted it. It gave me the freedom to spend as much or as little time as I wanted with my clients - no more recording everything in six minute units or having to charge clients for going to the loo! In fact I often spend more time than I charge for which may not have earned me massive profits but has given me a lot of grateful clients (and referrals) and a great deal of satisfaction. 27 years later, and slowly retiring, I have lifelong friends all over the country.

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Replying to Homeworker:
the sea otter
By memyself-eye
20th Feb 2023 19:05

Bravo - well done - just keep that husband of yours as a junior partner!
(they do get ideas above their station...)

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Della Hudson FCA
By Della Hudson
21st Feb 2023 09:27

Personally I love working alone. I can’t imagine anything worse than commuting to an office full of people. (The 2 years of lockdowns was hermit heaven for me.)

This tax return season was blissful as I was self-isolating Dec/Jan ready for surgery so I didn’t even have social obligations. Last tax return submitted 9th Jan so no work stress. My business is fully remote ready to travel and become a digital nomad when my youngest leaves home this year.

On the other hand I’m always active on social media so I never feel isolated. Like many introverts I prefer communicating in writing so this suits me.

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Replying to HudsonCo:
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By ABC12
22nd Feb 2023 11:01

Just like me. I can be very talkative online but put me in a room with people and I clam up. Love my own space and wondered what everyone was complaining about in lockdown!

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By johnjenkins
21st Feb 2023 09:57

Will, you're not on your own. Every day is different. You meet and see different types of people all the time, when you want to.
The whole idea of being self-employed, be it an Accountant or anything else, is to do it yourself. Yes, you have to have a certain mindset, it's not for everyone.
Stress is self made. How many people have stressed over MTD for 6 years, yet nothing is forthcoming and I doubt if it ever will. How many Accountants have posted that they aren't even going to think about MTD until it really becomes a reality.
What's the old saying "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen".
What I will say is that these days it has become harder to get job satisfaction but that isn't due to the work, that is due to outside influences.

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By indomitable
21st Feb 2023 14:21

"The unique challenges of working in practice are often compounded by working alone. How do sole practitioners safeguard their mental health when working in isolation?"

We are in danger as a society of talking ourselves into issues that are not necessarily there.

Why is everything anyone does these days stressful or prone to mental health issues?

I can only imagine what the war generation would think of us!

Working from home! Earning a good living! Not having to commute! Not having to put up with a boss! Oh yes a recipe for mental health issues

That is not to say I am belittling the problems of mental health, but I do not think they are bought about by having a relatively comfortable lifestyle working from home on your own!

Sometimes I think these articles are written because something just needs to be published

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Replying to indomitable:
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By ABC12
22nd Feb 2023 11:03

My mental health improved massively by working at home for myself! Introvert nirvana

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By Geoff56
22nd Feb 2023 14:23

For me, the sense of isolation is felt most keenly when I am faced with a tax conundrum or an ethical dilemma, that I don't know how to resolve. I know there are sources of advice etc., but it's not the same as having someone who can genuinely share the load with you. The buck stops with me and I will have to carry the can if I get it wrong.

I was in partnership with one other for 23 years (which brought its own frustrations) and have been a sole practitioner for the last 18 years. I do prefer being an SP, but that doesn't save me from periods of real anxiety, worry and sleepless nights.

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Replying to Geoff56:
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By Homeworker
23rd Feb 2023 12:26

Geoff56 wrote:

For me, the sense of isolation is felt most keenly when I am faced with a tax conundrum or an ethical dilemma, that I don't know how to resolve. I know there are sources of advice etc., but it's not the same as having someone who can genuinely share the load with you. The buck stops with me and I will have to carry the can if I get it wrong.

I was in partnership with one other for 23 years (which brought its own frustrations) and have been a sole practitioner for the last 18 years. I do prefer being an SP, but that doesn't save me from periods of real anxiety, worry and sleepless nights.


I confess that although I haven't regretted going solo, there have been nights when I have been kept awake by worries about work, particularly when I made a big mistake some years ago and had to claim on insurance. It all worked out in the end and I still have the client, as I have never tried to hide my mistakes, though it did cost me more in increased premiums afterwards. I have kept in contact with colleagues I have worked with in the past and occasionally run a problem by them (though not too often). It works both ways.
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