Sunburn and burnout: Why accountants just can’t let go of the office

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Not even the summer holidays can prise some accountants away from their work. As the always-on culture grips practitioners, is switching off even possible?

Alistair Hayward-Wright was feeling exhausted. He just couldn’t let go of his Midlands-based practice. He had a few issues in his personal life but the business wasn’t helping. His smart phone only tightened the shackles the business held over him.

Emails on a PC he could walk away from, but the smart phone pinging away drove him “up the wall”.

He didn’t realise it but the sheer number of hours he was working didn’t make him more productive. Actually, Hayward-Wright delivered the opposite:

“Psychologically you think I've got to answer that email because that's the way to supply the customer service,” he said. “But actually it's not because I got to the point where I was making silly mistakes because I wasn't focused on that.”

It’s a story that’s become all too common in the profession. Speaking on the phone, Hayward-Wright recounts his former work attachment with an affable and relaxed tone. It’s been over five years since he salvaged his personal life. A turning point was a new relationship but another big step he took was disconnecting his emails from his phone. This means he's not distracted between 6pm and 8am the next morning with emails – and not on the weekends either.

If anything, these boundaries have improved his client service: “It was primarily to get the work/life balance back, but secondly, it was better for client service because when I was answering the email, I was concentrating on answering it rather than silly mistakes,” he said.

(Alistair Hayward-Wright, director of Hayward Wright)


The lines between work and life are blurring

Switching off is becoming ever more difficult for practitioners. Earlier this year, research from CV-Library found the worrying extent the always-on culture is having on workplace wellbeing: 60% of accountants reply to emails and make work-related calls outside office hours, while 80% felt the blurring lines between work and life has had a negative effect on them.

As a society though, our relationship with our smartphones has blown out of equilibrium. A recent Ofcom report found smartphone users checked their devices every 12 minutes during their waking day.

Whereas people like Ad Valorem’s Nikki Adams uses cloud accounting tools to enjoy Floridian breaks, others feel even more even more tethered to the workplace.

Ironically, the risk of a burnout is just as rampant in this jet-set period of sun loungers and cocktails. Not even a holiday getaway can break the lure of emails or client demands. If the last thing a quarter of accountants do before going asleep is to check their emails, not even the prospect of the sun can break that habit.

A blog from AccountingWEB regular Glenn Martin last year illustrated the stress a practitioner goes through when trying to mesh their aspirational business plans with their personal goals such as holidays.

Panic started to set in weeks before Martin’s two-week Croatian break. Falling behind in his Q1 business plan coupled with some new enquiries, that as a growing practice he didn’t want to miss out on, Martin’s lists of tasks were constantly growing. He even started to regret booking the holiday. In the end, Martin worked a few 12 hour days and worked until midnight the night before his departure, leaving packing until the eleventh hour.

The pressure holidays have on firms even led one AccountingWEB member to consider on Any Answers whether enforcing a three month block on staff holidays between May and July would ease what has become a busy period. Of course, this would, as the AccountingWEB community pointed out, trigger bigger issues surrounding staff retention.  

(image credit: istock_PeskyMonkey)
(image credit: istock_PeskyMonkey)

Elsewhere, this inability to let go of the business is all too familiar for the majority of accountants in practice featured in AccountingWEB’s weekly Small Change series. Carl Reader, for instance, was so obsessive about his emails that even if he didn’t receive a notification he would convince himself that he felt his blackberry buzz.

Similarly, Laith Hilfi from Rayner Essex was always subconsciously checking his emails. “You fall into that trap where you keep looking at your phone,” he said. Hilfi decided not to check emails outside office hours as “it’s not like a life-threatening matter”. Emails waited until the morning and he felt fresher for doing so. “You give your brain a rest,” he said. “Otherwise, what happens is you could get an email which annoys you and it plays with your mind. You start thinking about it. It just ruins your evening.”

The fear of missing out

However, his old habits are creeping back. In a blog post, Heather Townsend blamed the fear of missing out for pulling accountants like Hilfi back into the business.

 “It is a fear that we are going to miss an urgent email from a client or a prospect whilst we are away, which tricks us into thinking we need to continually check our email when we are away,” wrote Townsend. “Or perhaps when we’ve taken a break before we’ve come back to a practice which is fast descending into chaos.”

So, how do you break the habit? Townsend said it starts with how you educate your team and more importantly, your clients. “If you’ve educated your team to call you or email you with the slightest problem, they are going to call you or email you with the slightest problem while you are away,” she wrote. The same could be said for the clients, too.

Instead, she recommends setting expectations and boundaries with the team and clients. This means, she advised, identifying the likely clients who will need have an urgent query and call them before you go away.

It is a fear that we are going to miss an urgent email from a client or a prospect whilst we are away, which tricks us into thinking we need to continually check our email when we are away

It is a tactic Martin took before his holiday. “What I underestimated was how good my relationships are with clients - a few last minute requests were met with ‘I am sorry but it will have to wait until I was back,’” he wrote. “Again, clients were OK with this.”

Managing client’s expectations

Martin’s example shows that with managing clients expectations, letting go of your practice is achievable, but when the time comes to rip off the proverbial bandage, it can feel easier said than done.  

One way we’ve seen practitioners achieve this through interweaving their out of office response within their client service strategy. But letting go of the practice is a long-term mindset shift, rather than something you do for two weeks every summer, as Growth Factor’s Simon Kallu explained:

“I recently went on holiday for a week with the family and didn't touch my emails once. When I am in office hours I only check emails twice a day. So I batch check them, make sure I get something done productively before I even look at my emails, so I don't look at them until midday.

“What we've bred in our firm is the culture that clients know that they'll get the same day response or they can call us; otherwise, they won't get an instant email response and they shouldn't expect one,” he said.

Despite weeks of preparation and planning, Martin occasionally cradled his iPad on the sun lounger. Although he need not worried. A week into his holiday last year he had two emails that needed dealing with. “A two week break is doable,” he concluded, “but you have to cram the two weeks into the 3/4 weeks before you go.”

* * *

Hayward-Wright is now getting quality headspace after setting some boundaries. He now spends his time away from the office cooking. At first, he developed an interest in cooking as a way to switch off and “not think about tax” but he’s since fallen in love his culinary escape.

His clients were fine about his office working hours, with only a small handful of clients at the time wanted to know why he didn’t reply to the email they sent at 9pm the night before.

Switching off and recharging his batteries hasn’t affected his business; the firm’s headcount has increased by 47% in two years.

Aware of the effects of the always-on culture, Hayward-Wright is evangelical about letting go. And so, he is cognisant of the symptoms – especially when it involves his staff members.

“I've got some very good staff - and can almost see the same things happening to them that I went through,” he said.

“I do talk to them. You need that downtime. Hopefully, they follow the advice.”

About Richard Hattersley

Richard Hattersley

Richard is AccountingWEB's practice correspondent. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.

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09th Aug 2018 16:29

In my experience , the harmful mental and physical effects of the always on work culture are quite insidious. It is possible to cope with this pressure for many years without recognising or perhaps acknowledging the early warning signs of burnout, anxiety and depression.

The cold which you can't quite fight off, or regularly waking up with a unexplained pain in the back are easily dismissed as just the norm for a busy professional.

Having done just that and experienced the fallout , I am a great believer in only checking emails inside working hours of 9 to 5.30pm and not at all whilst I am away on holiday

Thanks (5)
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09th Aug 2018 16:49

Simple answer to the Smartphone problem is not give your personal mobile number to clients and have separate work/personal email accounts, so work emails aren't pinging through to your phone all day.

I take my laptop on holidays and once every day or two I'll boot it up and check work emails. I put all the non urgent stuff into a "when I'm back" folder, so it's not all staring me on the screen, so I can forget it. For the urgent stuff, I'll reply within a couple of days or so, but that's very rare. I have an autoresponder saying I'm out of the office, so clients should know not to expect an immediate reply.

Thanks (1)
10th Aug 2018 07:38

May I ask a question here... what's a holiday? Not had one in years.
My clients do have my mobile phone number as my USP is giving a personal service (ie me - I do have staff but they do the work!). Clients know they can text me at least. However... it is purposely not a smart phone. I get looks when I get out my trusted old Nokia phone (they are coming back into fashion... I wonder why?!) and I explain that I spend my life in front of a laptop screen so dont want to check emails all the time.
I do an autoresponder 'I'm not here' as Ken does when I want a bit of peace or am traveling up the A303 or am having my Friday off shopping or like yesterday when I went to a clients funeral.
But unless I have something urgent on I'll finish at 6pm (no lunch break of course).

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10th Aug 2018 09:06

I really hope the "always-on" culture doesn’t become the norm in our profession. This idea that you are a good professional, only if you can be contacted by your client/superior at midnight and reply...it seems totally bizarre to me.

I’ll add the caveat that I am in an employment situation, so appreciate that things may be different for those out on their own.

Where I’ve worked before, and to a much lesser extent where I am now, certain people seem to get a perverse sense of pride and superiority by being able to say how they worked all day, never took a break, and then answered emails into the wee hours of the night. Good for you. I went home, had dinner with my family, read the kids a story, then settled down to watch TV with the wife. Funnily enough, we’re both still in a job, and I don’t have clients breathing down my neck all the time.

Never get to use up their holidays as they’ve “too much on”. Spiffing. You’re in the same role as me, with the same workload, but are too busy to do anything out with work…

I sometimes wonder if those “trapped” in the “always-on” culture perhaps have serious problems they have to deal with, and work is a distraction for them. I worked with a guy who was married with 3 kids, and he always worked long into the evening, and did stuff when he went home. I felt sad, for him and his family, that this would be how they were spending their time together. I did sometimes wonder, is there tension with the wife that makes home life unbearable, or does he actually prefer his work.

Life is too short to spend more than you actually have to working. If you genuinely love your job, then great, crack on. But if you feel forced to adhere to the always-on culture, don’t be. It’s your life and you only have limited time, so stop it, and if you’re current role won’t allow for it, then leave for another one.

Thanks (13)
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to Lone_Wolf
10th Aug 2018 09:33

Absolutely agree.

We're not surgeons - we don't need to be contacted that urgently!

Thanks (1)
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to Lone_Wolf
10th Aug 2018 13:16

The idea is to educate your clients so they don't phone,while they are sitting in front of the mortgage advisor, asking for figures.
However as a true Accountant (and not a number cruncher-who I have nothing against) you don't switch off nor do you want to cos you love what you do. It's not a vehicle for earning money, (although that does help) it's a way of life that fits in with everything else. If I'm one of few then I can understand that anything can get you down be it family, work, traffic (that really bugs me), but the answer is that anything that is not life threatening can wait.

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10th Aug 2018 09:55

I totally agree with this article and never have emails going to the phone. I also set my Outlook email download to 1 hour to avoid being distracted during the working day.

Another trick is to make sure you unsubscribe to unwanted email that keeps coming through.

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By birdman
10th Aug 2018 10:28

My hobby - birdwatching - takes me to some pretty remote areas, so when I'm away it's often not physically possible to stay in touch. Lovely! Next hol is Mongolia in a couple of weeks, I doubt there's Wifi in the Gobi Desert ;)

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to birdman
10th Aug 2018 11:18

I find Amsterdam is much better for bird watching and there's not as far to travel.

Wait...you're talking about the flying variety aren't you? I feel a bit better about your "remote areas" comment now.

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to Lone_Wolf
10th Aug 2018 16:03

Bangkok is even better.

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to Marlinman
10th Aug 2018 16:22

Hmm...you're never quite sure what you're getting in Bangkok.

Amsterdam's closer and you know you're not going to get any...surprise packages...

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10th Aug 2018 11:29

Well said Richard. Modern Technology should always be used to enable us to be more efficient during the normal 9-5 working day and not to be on call outside of those hours.

One of our Accountancy Clients embraces technology in this way and he and his team work from home too thereby saving on travel, time and office costs.

Of course this means both he and his team are far more productive and motivated!

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10th Aug 2018 15:59

I no longer need to sit in the office getting bored waiting for clients to bring their books in. The Internet has given me my freedom and I can now work from anywhere in the world as long as I can get online. I have no problem with clients contacting me while I'm away and can usually respond immediately. I still have a few clients who keep paper records but they have to wait until I'm in the office.

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