Take action now to beat burnoutby
As the busy season lumbers into view, Lucy Cohen offers some practical and effective tips to help you banish burnout.
I’m going to hold my hands up and say it: I’m a little burned out right now.
I’ve had some all-consuming things that I’ve been working on, and I’ve let them take priority over other important things like self-care.
For now, I’m fine; the situation is salvageable. But the telltale signs of burnout are creeping in. Rather than drifting off to sleep at the end of the day, I pretty much just pass out. I wake in the night with things on my mind and struggle to get back to sleep. I’m starting to feel guilty about my less-than-frequent visits to the gym, and when left to my own devices for meals I grab handfuls of snacks rather than eating something that might actually nourish me. If I let things continue without taking some action, then I’ll likely be struck down by lingering sniffles, I’ll start getting brain fog, and then I’ll begin snapping at people around me as I become more irritable. So, for the sake of myself and my loved ones, it’s of the utmost importance that I take some steps in the right direction now!
For those of us that work in practice, we’ve probably all been here. The tight deadlines and client demands of the dreaded January can often lead to accountants suffering from burnout. And let’s not forget the heroic shift that the profession put in during the pandemic and then the resulting burnout that ensued. We work in a space where it is often our job to bear the load for our clients, and that stress by proxy can take its toll.
I’ve been here several times before over my career. And while I don’t seem to have learned enough of a lesson to stop it from happening altogether, I can at least spot the signs and take some aversive action.
So what do you do if you feel that burnout creeping up on you? Is it an inevitability, or can you avoid it? Well, here’s what I've learned over the years that I think might be useful for you.
First of all, don’t beat yourself up about it – you’ll only make things worse. We can all look back at what led us here and decide that perhaps we should have delegated things sooner, asked for help more forcefully, or fired that nuisance client months ago – but that’s not helpful right now. For any number of reasons, you took on too much – the why of it doesn’t really matter in this moment. You can deal with planning to avoid it once you’re out on the other side of this. For now, you need to treat yourself with compassion and just look one step ahead at a time. Short-term, rather than long-term, thinking is what will get you through this rocky patch.
Next, is to remove extra decision-making from your life. We all rely on our brains for our jobs, so we need them to function well. If we’re running at a more limited capacity, then we can make sure we have enough fuel for the important things by removing the noise from our noggins. If any of you have seen the outfits I like to wear at awards ceremonies, you’ll know that I love some ostentatious fashion. But on the day-to-day, when I’m stretched for bandwidth, I give myself a uniform. Black bottoms and a black top for both casual and formal wear. Black on black always matches; it pretty much always looks smart enough for anything I need to attend, and I don’t need to think about my outfit at all. I also exclusively wear clothes that don’t need ironing – that’s admin I just don’t need.
Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs are known for wearing the same outfit every day (allegedly to save their mental capacity for more important things), and while that’s not something I might want to do for ever, it does remove one decision and some laundry admin from my burned-out brain for a time. And that’s what we want to achieve right now!
Food for thought
Now, we’re going to talk about food – specifically eating to nourish ourselves. Burnout is a foundation for falling ill, and eating properly can help to counteract that. But what if you just don’t have the time or energy to be whipping up wholesome dishes in your kitchen? Living off processed food or takeout is less than ideal, but so is skipping meals (which is what I would do if I didn’t provision properly).
Nowadays, we are blessed with all sorts of accessible meal prep services. Some of them require you to cook the food, some just to heat it up. There are even some meal replacement options that just require the addition of hot water and still boast a good helping of protein, vitamins and minerals.
In an ideal world we’d all have enough time to prepare food for the week on a Sunday, pop it in Tupperware and shove it in the freezer for the following week and beyond. Life happens, though, and when you’re mentally exhausted, just the effort required to think about buying ingredients and cooking is too much. So, for a short time, use the modern meal options that we now have available. They may cost a little more than buying all the ingredients and making the food yourself, but they cost less than falling ill for weeks and having to take time off work. Many of them have incredibly generous introductory offers that you can use.
I also recommend having things like protein bars or fruit that doesn’t require any preparation around you at all times (think apples not mango). If you’re in a bind then they can tide you over and require absolutely zero thought or preparation. This solution isn’t perfect, and it’s not something I’d advocate for long term. But when you are clinging on by a thread these options can be a blessing.
My final hack is to take a look at all of the noisy activities in your life that you don’t enjoy doing and see what you can delegate to other people. In order for me to function at my absolute best, I made the decision a long time ago to hire help in my house. I have a cleaner, a gardener, laundry assistance and occasionally call in a decluttering company to sort out things for me. Do those things cost money? Yes, they absolutely do. But in the same way that we advise our clients of the value in our fees as accountants instead of trying to do their accounts themselves, I see the value in paying other professionals to do the things I am not good at or don’t enjoy doing. In employing other professionals to handle those tasks, I have bought myself back valuable time, and no longer have to carry the mental and physical load of doing housework.
Ultimately, you don’t want to get to the stage where you’re so burned out that you are struggling. Burnout is not a badge of honour. Sometimes it can sneak up on us though, and when it does, having a few easily deployable strategies up your sleeve may save you from the worst of it.