Stressed sole practitioners: Learn to say no

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Richard Hattersley
Community correspondent
AccountingWEB
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“I feel like a complete failure at the moment,” an overwhelmed sole practitioner wrote on Any Answers.

The AccountingWEB member, who has been a sole practitioner for eight years, described how unappreciative clients caused their stress and anxiety. Working seven days a week has taken its toll and the claws of anxiety have shredded their focus and drive.  

“I feel like packing it all in and sailing into the sunset and then finding a completely unstressful job that at the end of every day I can leave work at work and go home and forget,” the member said.

What this post illustrates is how stress can torment accountants’ mental health throughout the year, not just during self assessment season. And when a sole practitioner is isolated at home or in the office, anxiety levels can soar.

You’re a limited resource

“The first thing is to actually acknowledge it: even if you had all the time in the world you would never be able to get on top of everything,” says the Accountants Coach, Carol McLachlan. “You are a limited resource and as such you have to be used sparingly”.

McLachlan says practitioners suffer these pressures when their role doesn’t seem humanly ‘doable’. And this causes practitioners to fall into the trap of working seven days a week. If practitioners do not rebalance their work-personal time, they will eventually lead to burn-out or a stress-related illness.

“Your well-being must be accounted for on an equal footing to your professional responsibilities. If you don't do this effectively then that is where time is always going to be withdrawn from - your personal time overdraft.”

The art of ‘no’

Over on Any Answers, it was soon revealed that the stressed sole practitioner was not the only accountant to feel this way. The more the AccountingWEB members shared their experiences the more it became clear that there was a general theme emerging: practitioners must learn the art of saying “no”.

“Decide now what you are going to say no to make space for yourself and schedule time slots as you would any other business activity,” said McLachlan. “Not only will you feel better emotionally, your intellect will perform better and your personal effectiveness will improve.” 

The sole practitioner’s thread spans 33 comments (at time of writing), and there is no way of comprehensively condensing all the advice into the confines of this article. Below I have tried to summarise some of the advice into three sections, but the thread is well worth seeking out and exploring the comments in more detail.

Sack unappreciative clients

The prevailing thought was the need for the practitioner to have frank discussions with unappreciative clients.

AccountingWEB member Indomitable, for instance, recommended that the member finds out exactly why the clients in question are acting the way that they are; whether it’s because they have unrealistic expectations or if they are being promised too much.

Others advised the member to takes steps to “cut the dead wood”. “The satisfaction of getting rid of the horrible/ time consuming - for not much profit if any - clients is great,” wrote Jennifer Adams.

The reality, as Andy Partridge explained, is that the job is stressful but the solution isn’t that difficult. “Identify the clients who cause [your stress] and either change the way you work with them or get rid of them,” writes Partridge. And if you’re too busy, he adds, “get rid of the low profit clients who take up a disproportionate amount of your time.”

Increase fees

Now that the unappreciative clients are taken care of, the next strategy the member needed to address was fees.

Increasing fees may lead to a loss of clients, but as DMGbus explained it will reduce the workload and time pressure stress. “Some say that the fee increase should be applied to every client, others, like myself instead consider a more selective approach, ie apply to the troublesome/the timewasters/the high maintenance cases and those who think that you can afford to wait months to get paid for work done / fee invoices rendered,” advised DMGbus.

Workflows

Once the stress from clients is dealt with, the community promoted a number of capacity strategies. Sally Richardson, for example, explained how her simple whiteboard Kanban system transformed her workflow (Bobby Chadha suggested a similar approach using Trello in a recent AccountingWEB article).

Richardson’s board is split into three sections (to do, doing and done) and post-it notes are used for each job. “All of the deadlines and work is moved out of your head onto the wall,” she says. “It relieves all of the pressure I used to feel about having to remember everything.”

Health should be prioritised over clients. No matter what system is put in place or how many troublesome clients are sacked, the member needs to treat their anxiety. “Lots of people are treated for stress and anxiety at some point in their lives,” wrote Mumpin. “This may be something that’s wrong with your outlook rather than your practice.”

This story, though, has a happy ending. The support and encouragement displayed by the AccountingWEB community resonated with the member. Buoyed by the outpouring, the member returned to the thread not only to thank the community but also to update their situation: they’ve taken the first steps to putting an action plan in place.

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17th Aug 2017 17:58

Hi Richard

I hope you are keeping well and perhaps I will see you again this year at the ICB summit.

I am late to this discussion as I have been on holiday. I agree with all advice Andy Partridge gave. As some of the members may know I have had a spinal fusion and a couple of significant hearing operations over the years, so I had my fair share of being stressed.

I would like to add something regarding the loneliness and stress. We have discussed this in a great deal at some of our ICB meetings. I would like to suggest that people join their professional body networking events or a local event where they meet other accountants or bookkeepers.

I am a member of the ICB and as well as the ICB Glasgow branch leader. We all meet up all over the country. Many of us have become good friends for this very reason. We have built up knowledge share groups for example 3 of you in a skype group where you can share worries, stresses of clients during the day, get IT knowledge and be exceptionally open or you can have two of you ring each other for example, we can use the branch Facebook network. I must admit I am not a facebook fan, so I do not use the Facebook, but many do.

It is not like a forum because it is having that total trust with a colleague. I take part in a quite a few, as like everyone else I have up days even though I have employees. I have terrific colleagues in Glasgow, Brighton and London, Newcastle where I have asked for help.

Nearly four years ago someone from Brighton contacted me because they liked my comments on Accounting Web and wanted to know if could keep in touch. We have skyped each other ever since and have attended events in London together. All I will say is I feel a hell of lot happier since I opened up and found there was so much support from others.

I always thought that the others were my competitors they have now turned out to be good friends, mentors and brilliant support network.

My point is if you can find someone you like even online or at a meeting make that friend because I guarantee you in our line of work so many feel the same way as many have already said.

Thanks (6)
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21st Aug 2017 11:25

Just said "no, I'm on holiday" to someone who had arranged a meeting with a mortgage adviser and had sent me her accounts by email to deal with immediately - only to have her follow up with an email saying she had done it herself and we would no longer be acting!

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23rd Aug 2017 20:48

Good advice from Richard. Maybe I can add my tuppence worth having worked for both a 2 partner firm of accountants and then a sole practitioner in the past. My experiences were so bad that I vowed never to work in professional practice and I haven't since then.

OK picture this scenario, sole practitioner with lots of small clients (carrier bag jobs). The client (probably a builder, carpenter, plumber, electrician etc. walks into the office and asks how much it will cost to do his accounts and submit them to the tax office.

The nervous practitioner who needs every new client he can get, sizes him up, checks out his clothing etc. to determine what he can charge. Forget charging a reasonable rate to do the job, its a dog eat dog world now and you are competing with qualified people working from home (very little overheads) and offering the same service for half your price.

So you nervously quote him 75% of your normal fee in the hope of securing a new client into the long future. The client lets out a gasp of exasperation as he knows you need his job so he shakes his head and offers you only 50%. Glumly you are forced to accept thinking you will somehow manage to make a profit over the years. You and your staff are now under pressure to produce an accurate set of accounts on a time budget that is based on the fee agreed upfront and bears no resemblance to reality.

This is just the start of the stress, you then have to chase several times to get paid by which time another year is ready. Multiply this by numerous clients and you will realise that being a sole practitioner is a very tough job. Basically there is a glut of accountants in the market place, a lot of whom work from home. Logical advice and time management goes out of the window as you desperately collect fees to provide a living.

So what is the alternative? Working in an office less stressful? No chance, every office I have worked in since then has had huge amounts of politics and dominant characters who rule the office and expect you to conform or else they will make your life miserable. This is the downfall of the UK now, politics everywhere and that is why so many people visit their doctors for stress related illness.

At least if you are in a job, you can find something else and move whenever you are not happy. When you are a sole practitioner you are pretty much at a dead end unless you leave the profession to work and even then you have to face discrimination in finding a job as most of our vile employment agencies will categorise you into professional practice roles only and will be reluctant to offer you other jobs.

In short the UK has become a very tough market overall. Its purely your luck now as to how much stress you suffer in your working life. Gone are the days when you could do your 9 to 5 and go home relaxed to your family. Good luck.

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