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Burnt-out exhausted people | accountingweb | Managing burnout and balancing the books
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Take action now to beat burnout

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As the busy season lumbers into view, Lucy Cohen offers some practical and effective tips to help you banish burnout.

13th Nov 2023
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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. 

Evading burnout

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.

Uniform solutions

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.

Professional assistance

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.

Replies (26)

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By Matrix
13th Nov 2023 20:24

Sorry to hear you are feeling this way. The deadlines aren’t tight though and just don’t take on demanding clients. Taking control is empowering.

Thanks (1)
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By possep
14th Nov 2023 07:49

Rather too much of a personal muddled statement rather than an article.

Thanks (7)
Replying to possep:
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By johnjenkins
14th Nov 2023 09:34

Cleaner, gardener, laundry assistant, wow how the other half live.

Thanks (7)
Replying to johnjenkins:
All Paul Accountants in Leeds
By paulinleeds
14th Nov 2023 10:29

I always do the gardening. It provides some exercise, fresh air and some relaxation time. Best medicine out there. Yes, it's a chore, but gives me some quiet valuable down time.

Same could be true of cleaning, I.e
Exercise, for some, but I hate it.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
By Silver Birch Accts
14th Nov 2023 13:40

I have a client (legal professional) who employs a chauffeur, perhaps Lucy should add one to her payroll.

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Replying to possep:
All Paul Accountants in Leeds
By paulinleeds
14th Nov 2023 10:31

It is 'a personal muddled statement', but I think that it paints a relatable picture and god for thought.

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Replying to paulinleeds:
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By johnjenkins
14th Nov 2023 10:44

So how many of us have domestic staff, do you think?

Thanks (3)
Replying to johnjenkins:
Richard Hattersley
By Richard Hattersley
15th Nov 2023 09:07

Am I reading this right? Is it really that controversial if someone hires a cleaner or a gardener? Where do we draw the line? Should we be up in arms if someone pays for a window cleaner?

Thanks (3)
Replying to Richard Hattersley:
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By johnjenkins
15th Nov 2023 09:48

Richard, Accountant's humour is an acquired taste that doesn't suit everyone's palate. We are not up in arms merely playfully having fun at the articles expense.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
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By Amy Chin
15th Nov 2023 10:24

*writer's expense.

Speaking as a chartered accountant, I do not share your "taste" in "humour" johnjenkins. I am glad to see your most offensive personal comment on this article has now been deleted.

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Replying to Amy Chin:
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By johnjenkins
15th Nov 2023 12:07

Amy, I have dealt with the deletion of my "non personal" comment in a private post but as you have mentioned it I will explain it to you.
It is a well known fact that to relieve stress some people :- go to a spa, go on a shopping spree or have their hair done. My post was merely a play on words chauffeur/coiffeur and was not intended to directly offend Lucy.
IMHO this article is far too personal and should not have been posted.

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Replying to Amy Chin:
By Silver Birch Accts
16th Nov 2023 13:26

You speak for yourself, not as a Chartered Accountant.

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By Marlinman
14th Nov 2023 10:40

I'll be sunning myself in Thailand for most of January. April and May are my busiest months as clients want to know where they stand.

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Replying to Marlinman:
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By johnjenkins
14th Nov 2023 10:43

While you're away no doubt your domestic staff will take care of things.

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By indomitable
14th Nov 2023 11:46

I think these sorts of articles should be written by a trained 'psychotherapist or 'psychiatrist'

If you are depressed or are having any 'mental health issues' please talk to a professional.

I would say, but this is a personal opinion, if you are feeling very stressed or 'burnt out' because you have to fill out a few tax returns by the deadline, this should not really in normal circumstances be causing you particular grief.

We all have different levels of resilience and there is a danger people talk themselves into being stressed.

Make sure you have a life and activities outside of work (very important), and don't take yourself or your work too seriously!

But seek professional help if it is all getting too much!

Thanks (6)
Replying to indomitable:
Richard Hattersley
By Richard Hattersley
15th Nov 2023 09:18

Hi Indomitable,

You make a good point about seeking professional help and I agree about the need for having fulfilling activities outside of work.

I must respond though to the point that these sort of articles should be written by a trained psychotherapist. AccountingWEB is a community. It's what makes the site great.

Across the site AccountingWEB members share their problems and challenges and also their approaches and techniques in dealing with these challenges. That is exactly what Lucy has done here.

Thanks (3)
Replying to Richard Hattersley:
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By indomitable
15th Nov 2023 12:26

Sorry Richard, but I do think it important that people with 'mental health' issues seek advice from trained professionals in this area

Not sure that 'not thinking' about what to wear, eating ready meals (very unhealthy) and having personal assistants to do the gardening and chores are a way of avoiding burnout.

I especially have an issue with not cooking a meal for yourself and family. So what is the author advocating here?

"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"

Make time! You and your family's health is far more important than some self-imposed deadline.

I have always found gardening very therapeutic (not so much cleaning though). But my point is you need to spend more time 'out' of your business not in it.

The point of the article appears to me to advocate freeing up time to spend more time in the business, or am I reading it wrong?

My advice is the same if you are feeling excessively stressed or 'burnt out' seek professional help

Thanks (5)
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By SuperAccountingSteve
14th Nov 2023 13:29

"meal replacement options" where you add water, i think these should also in the category of processed foods.

Thanks (4)
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By Mr J Andrews
14th Nov 2023 16:54

Looks like an article where someone is working #### backwards. How many times have we heard of self inflicted pressure ? A few tips :-

~ Don't fall into the trap of creating a busy season. Educate your clients to give what you want ,
when you want.
~Spend less time worrying about how fashionable you look - or may not look, as may be the case.
And don't concern yourself with what Jobs & Zuckerberg - or any other multi billionaires - are
wearing. They don't care what problems you have in clothing.
~ For that matter , consider whether the awards ceremonies you dress up for and attend are helpful - or detrimental to running your business.
~ Try and sort out the clutter and muddles in your house. It's amazing how much more efficient you
become in a neat and tidy envoronment. It's particularly worrying to have to call in a company
from time to time to sort out this mess. Consider therapy if this is a problem
~ Do a bit of gardening rather than pay someone . Better still get an allotment. It's therapeutic and a
healthy break from work.
~ With the savings from paying for these domestic chores, take someone on in the business to guide
you in your shortcomings at work.
~ Eat sensibly. Don't rely on junk crap. It's absolutely ridiculous to suggest anyhing but
advocating any long term reliance on ''alternative'' nutrition.
~ Wind down with a pint or two , a G & T or a glass of wine. I've always found this a solution to
burnout.

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By Amy Chin
15th Nov 2023 09:39

Great article, Lucy! So important to do what we can to avoid burnout during busy periods but it's all too easy to forget, so thanks for the reminder.

I too am a huge fan of meal prep kits - meal planning for the kids is as much as I can handle on top of work, life admin and everything in between. Without the meal prep kits I often fell into the trap of skipping my own meals or unhealthy takeaways. The "just add water" options are also perfect for staying on top of nutrition when I don't have time to prepare a healthy lunch.

Interesting that so many people are recommending gardening as therapy. Personally I detest gardening, I'm rubbish at it and for me it's the opposite of therapeutic. I'd rather pay a gardener and go for a run to clear my head.

Anyway, the point that most people seem to be missing here is that we can all make small changes to our lifestyle, which will of course be different depending on our individual situation and preferences, but it's important to open that conversation and get people thinking about it.

Thanks (3)
Replying to Amy Chin:
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By possep
16th Nov 2023 13:59

I don't think people are missing the point in what is really a muddled ramble rather than an article. It also sounds incredibly unhealthy in parts.

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By Pam Moreland
15th Nov 2023 14:26

I have a cleaner and gardener to whom I have been married for 41 years. Very good and costs me nothing, apart from fact that I do his tax return too! But as I do all the calculations it was filed in August.
Seriously though there were some really good points. You have to decide what works for you and we are all different. I love to cook and it is my relaxation so I do prepare proper meals at the weekend for the week ahead (but I do that all year anyway to save time in the evenings) and as I am now over 60 I stop work at 6pm and do not work after then. Just too tiring to do more than a 9 hour day (8am to 6pm less a proper break for lunch for those who say my maths are wrong) and all that happens is that you make mistakes.
I will NOT compromise on physical activity - swimming, badminton and light gardening are what I do and that goes for January as well - though may be not on the 31st!
You have to keep well, eat properly and get enough sleep. After all clients aren't going to look after you and why should your nearest and dearest have to put up with the anger you would like to vent on those lovely tardy people who wait until 25 January before giving you their details (that you have chased umpteen times already) and then chasing you every 5 minutes for an update .
And NEVER do dry January or go on a diet- January is depressing enough without adding to the misery. Wait until February if you must.

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By Calculatorboy
15th Nov 2023 15:19

We do ourselves no favours burning out, just cut out all those onerous clients whose telephone calls even cause you high anxiety , you know the ones , working life then becomes bearable

Thanks (2)
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By Calculatorboy
15th Nov 2023 15:22

It's better to burn out
Than to fade away

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Replying to Calculatorboy:
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By johnjenkins
15th Nov 2023 16:18

"I'm gonna tell you how it's gonna be.
You're gonna give your work to me
I'm gonna work all night and day
well work is work, I'll not fade away"

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By Malcolm.Harris
24th Nov 2023 07:54

Good conversation to start. My response in this situation (burnout, not just being busy) would actually be to stop and think about how to stop this situation happening again and make a decision. It might only take 30 mins and if that means you don't meet your deadline so be it. Otherwise it's too easy to let it happen again.

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