Stressed sole practitioners: Learn to say no
“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 If you don't do this effectively then that is where time is always going to be withdrawn from - your personal time overdraft.”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.”
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.
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.