Accountants: Are you dreading the stress of the tax season? Here are 7 ways to stop the feeling so stressed about your workload.
A note for managing partners and other accounting professionals who need to balance bottom-line results with mental health and well-being.
My Uncle was a tax accountant. As a kid I knew that my dad, his best friend, would not talk to Malc as often during tax season. From a child’s perspective, it was as if my uncle disappeared into the mysterious abyss of accounting.
At the end of the season, the frequency of calls with my dad resumed. Even though my uncle and I didn’t talk at length about the stress of tax season, I’m fascinated that my childhood mind observed this pattern and that it left an impression on me.
As a kid, I knew accounting was important work. It had to be to ask a professional to work with such intensity for months. Now, as a consultant who often works with accountants, I understand the toll that can take on a professional. It’s not just tax season that can be gruelling, like many professional service providers such as lawyers and engineers, there can be waves of intensity all year long.
A study released by the Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association stated that four-in-five (79%) accountants believe that stress and poor mental health are a problem within the industry.
According to the caba white paper, 55% of accountants admitted that they were suffering from stress and burnout (compared with 41% of employees in other industries.)
I’m surprised the numbers aren’t higher.
Based on my conversations with accounting professionals, their approach to stress is similar to other professional service providers like lawyers and engineers. They are masters at coping with ‘walking burnout.’ That means they are reliable and do their job well, but that’s the part of the story that others see. The truth is, many are exhausted from the complex nature of their work, propping up their team’s morale, and juggling multiple priorities. They are the first to admit they wish they had more capacity to enjoy life and spend quality time with family and friends. Those who have normalized ‘walking burnout’ don’t realize that, if they don’t make some changes, they are one crisis away from full-blown burnout and going on stress leave. The good news is that it’s possible to interrupt this risk of burnout with small tweaks, a refreshed relationship with stress, and some personal capacity design.
How do you alleviate ‘Walking Burnout’ for your team?
If you’re the managing partner of a firm, then chances are you have many stressed professionals who are turning to you for answers. That’s tough since you may be among the walking burnout crew, too. There are many options to mitigate the risk of burnout, alleviate destructive stress patterns across the firm, and improve staff retention. And no, the answer is not to designate a room for meditation, host yoga classes over lunch, or give people extra vacation time. Although those sound like nice perks, they won’t fundamentally fix the burnout risk.
Here are some strategies to consider. These can lower levels of overwhelm for accountants dealing with heavy workloads this tax season:
Address stress as an individual issue AND a firm-wide issue.
I’m the first to encourage people to take 100% responsibility for their stress response. Managing mental, emotional, and physical health is an inside job. No one can fix another person’s stress levels. Even so, there are likely firm-wide issues that contribute to an unnecessarily stressful culture. Be strategic to create a working environment that optimizes performance, while honouring well-being. As the leader, facilitate a conversation to identify operational irritations and streamline systems accordingly. Your team likely already knows the irritations and has ideas to fix them. Address any festering unhealthy team dynamics and be clear about expectations for both managing work and for ensuring recovery time. It’s also important to create a common language and understanding around what causes stress, overwhelm and burnout and how best you can support each other during the intense tax season.
Protect Uninterrupted, Focused Work Blocks for EVERYONE
The biggest excuse as to why leaders are forced to work late at night, early in the mornings, and on weekends is frequent interruptions. These extra long hours can lead to a higher risk of burnout. Interruptions decrease billable hours and negatively impact mental health. If you, as the leader, are not consistently getting focused time when you’re in the office, imagine how bad it is for your up-and-comers who often absorb the task-intensity from their leaders.
Well-intentioned efforts to have an open-door policy can be replaced by a door-mat policy. It can take some creativity to stop the revolving door of interruptions, but it’s possible! You just need a system that ensures everyone has protected time for focused work.
One issue I hear from leaders who don’t believe it’s feasible to have consistent work blocks, is that junior team members often have questions that need answers quickly. If they aren’t there to offer support, the junior accountant may get stuck on a client file and cause a workflow bottleneck. With the right processes in place, you can optimize workflow and address urgent requests. Some of my clients have found that hosting rotating office hours between the experienced leaders in the office can serve the best of both worlds. A system like this can go a long way to lowering stress this tax season.
Don’t expect less work to be the answer.
Sure, it would be nice to experience a Goldilocks tax season with the perfect amount of work: not too much that team members feel overwhelmed, but not too little that the firm’s billable hours suffer. Unfortunately, the ‘just right’ workload is unrealistic.
As the leader, you need to balance the revenue requirements with the well-being of the individuals who will drive that revenue. The stress fix you choose needs to address the reality of the tax season workload. Streamline systems and empower people to be as productive as possible. For example, instead of expecting someone to work straight through for two or three hours at a time, encourage them to set timers for shorter work blocks with planned breaks in between. This ensures employees reenergize with purpose. Ultimately this will increase productivity over longer periods of time. Without proper breaks, effectiveness and focus will decline. It’s more profitable over the long term compared to someone trying to work for many hours straight and only getting up from their desk when their bladder can’t wait anymore.
Ensure systems are in place to optimize productivity.
A common theme among accounting firms is that there is very little attention placed on effective tracking systems beyond the client files. On the surface, having a strong CRM seems like a complete solution, but it’s not. Staring at a list of client names on a CRM, or worse, a stack of file folders on the desk and trying to figure out where to start are two of the most ineffective approaches to productivity that an accountant can take. A long list lacks context. Plus, there are many tasks that need to happen in a day that aren’t related to a specific client file. These tasks are often remembered at inconvenient times like when a person hits the pillow at night and is trying to fall asleep. That’s when the mind becomes a to-do list making machine. If this is happening for people in your firm, please ensure trustworthy, task-tracking systems are in place to alleviate this unnecessary stress-inducing issue. It’s the most powerful fix you can make.
Forget the swear jar – create a complaints jar.
Some teams fine people for swearing. I’d encourage you to fine people for complaining during tax season. For every complaint, they have to throw a dollar into the jar. Use the money for a pizza party or a charitable donation.
There is a reality of workload that comes with tax season; complaining about it makes it worse for several reasons. Complaining about an issue that can’t be changed wastes precious capacity to do, think, feel, and be. It does absolutely nothing to assist in getting the work completed. Complaining casts negativity over a situation for both the complainer and those listening, which ultimately makes the task harder than it needs to be and brings negative energy to the work environment. It can irritate those who just want to do their work and go home. Encourage your team to neutralize storylines and focus on streamlining tasks instead of complaining about them.
Focus on the bigger purpose of accounting.
While it’s easy to get stuck spinning in the stress of the daily grind, take time to remind yourself and your team about the importance of the work done by accountants. It impacts the financial well-being of your clients, which is hugely powerful. It’s not just pushing numbers; it’s about keeping the books in order for companies and families. Quality tax filing will keep people and companies in good standing with the government. An accountant doing a good job on a personal tax file could mean the difference between parents affording their child’s braces or not. Accounting helps leaders make critical business decisions like hiring and firing or investing in their organization’s future. Sometimes tapping into the bigger purpose of mundane work can ease the frustrations and stress of the tax season.
Take it from someone like me, who only likes books with words – not numbers – the work you do is important and appreciated. Please, never forget that!
If you need help strategizing or implementing the best solutions for your team, please connect with me directly. While it would have been better to train the team and create effective systems earlier, there’s still time to make an impact and alleviate stress for this tax season!