Sunburn and burnout: Why accountants just can’t let go of the office
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.
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.
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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.
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.”
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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.”
Richard is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.