The cyclic nature of accounting involves dealing with peaks of increased stress and workload, such as the self-assessment period. However, accountants do not only suffer from stress during these periods. They constantly need to be able to cope with the multiple demands and deadlines that the profession imposes.
According to the latest survey from Careers in Audit (CiA), more than a third (37%) of accountancy professionals suffer from stress on a weekly basis due to their work. A further 15% admitted their stress was so severe they were signed off work.
According to Carol McLachlan (aka The Accontants Coach), preventing work-related stress should start with managing your clients’ expectations: “Regardless of whether they work for an organisation, it’s up to the individuals to set their own boundaries. If you get used to answering emails in the middle of the night, then you are establishing that expectation. It’s all about the value added question; clients really expect more for the money they pay. Accountants are very much at the sharp end of that, which adds to the stress.
“You can set expectations in a way that is not too autocratic by doing it in terms of ‘what is good for me as an accountant is also good for you as a client’.”
Assertiveness with clients
Finding your ideal clients is not just about finding the biggest sources of revenue, but also about finding the clients who are easy to work with. Accountants should be able to say no when clients make unrealistic demands: “It’s in the accountants’ DNA to say yes to everything, but they have to move away from that mindset of not ever saying no. It’s very hard to do and it goes against instinct, but sometimes you have to walk away from client relationships,” said McLachlan.
“Lawyers and other professionals frequently walk away from clients. Equally, accountants sometimes need to make a brave move if a client has unreasonable expectations. Is this client actually a good client for your business? Is it somebody who is actually aligned with your values and way of working?”
Being assertive with clients requires finding the right balance to ensure you are not perceived as aggressive: “If saying no is too drastic, try a negotiation approach. Sit down and discuss expectations on both sides as a win-win conversation: ‘If I do this, you need to do this for me.’”
Training clients and even offering discounts to reward clients who send information early are some of the strategies that practitioners employ to avoid ending up with too much work during the busy season.
Others have resorted to setting new deadlines to their clients, such as the approach favoured by Paul Scholes, who told the AccountingWEB community he advised clients they couldn’t guarantee getting their tax return filed in time if they didn’t send all the necessary information by 31 October - and then moved the deadline forward even more to 5 July when they turned the end of October into a mad rush.
Project management skills
Being assertive goes a long way towards getting clients to submit the necessary information regularly. However, even though chasing can be a time-consuming irritant, it is not the only source of stress for accountants.
Learning to prioritise tasks goes a long way towards preventing work-related stress. McLachlan advised: “Set priorities and make decisions on what you can or cannot do. We are all human and we can’t work 12 hours a day every day of the year. Once you put everything that your role demands on paper, then you can stand back from it and say, ‘Okay, I can’t actually do all of this. So what are my priorities and how do they tie in my career goals?’”
Good planning skills to handle deadlines are among the most efficient tools that accountants can develop in order to prevent work-related stress. Busy days and big workloads are sometimes unavoidable, which is why management skills can make a difference.
Productivity and efficiency can be increased by prioritising tasks and setting goals. Find the time of the day when you are more productive, which will depend on whether you are a morning or evening person. Earmark important tasks that need the most energy and concentration for that time of the day.
Additionally, switching between interesting tasks and more mundane tasks, trying not to do too much at once and taking regular breaks can all increase your productivity and help you handle stress more efficiently.
A positive work-life balance can help with resilience, however, accountants still struggle to switch off, even during their holidays. Some general lifestyle changes can effectively decrease stress levels and increase resilience.
For instance, using relaxation or mindfulness techniques, making time for interests and hobbies and spending time with family and friends, getting good sleep, being physically active and eating healthily can all help.