No one doubts that the workplace has always been one of the major sources of stress in our lives – and now COVID-19 has added even more layers. According to a study in 2020, 82% of accounting professionals reported being burned out. While we’ve had to adopt difficult and unprepared work-from-home conditions, tax and accounting professionals also had to assume multiple roles, including helping clients file paperwork for the Paycheck Protection Program and loan forgiveness.
While we still have a long way to go before we completely overcome COVID-19, we are gearing up as usual for tax season. Our focus stays on preparing to meet deadlines, but it is also important to pay attention to our mental fitness. The World Health Organization has acknowledged the burnout issue as a current crisis at the workplace. Based on my experience, I encourage reviewing some best practices to avoid stressing yourself out before we get into the very heart of busy season.
Identify and acknowledge stress
To tackle a problem, start by identifying and acknowledging the problem. Until early last year, I may have known the dictionary meaning, but had not actually experienced “burnout.” But, with an increase in work responsibility, I soon realized something was different. My productivity dropped, even when I complained of working nonstop for unlimited hours. Once I identified and acknowledged the underlying problem, taking action to refocus was easy. Here are some of the early signs of burnout you and/or your team may experience:
- Critical of your work: Even after delivering the project on time, you may feel unsatisfied with the final product. This, in return, may demotivate you to take on more work and start another project. When you start experiencing fear of failure, it is a clear indication that you need to address the stress before it affects your productivity.
- Forcing yourself to work: Another strong sign of burnout is when it becomes challenging to get ready for, and start, your workday. If you’re hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock or phone more often, it’s time to pause and evaluate. Take charge and try to get your passion back.
- Missing appointments: At times, you may feel overwhelmed and try to avoid public interaction. Whether online or in person, you may find no motivation to take that client call or attend a team meeting. This may also affect your client relationship and your team’s motivation.
- Lack of concentration: During the early phase of burnout, you may find it hard to focus on reviewing and completing tasks you are responsible for.
- Client complaints: Changes in your work performance, while you experience some or all of the above symptoms, may result in client complaints. When you hear concerns from your clients, it is a strong indication of deficiency or burnout.
Plan and prepare
One of the best ways to avoid stress related to the busy season is by planning – and there is no such thing as overplanning. Spending enough time preparing provides a clear roadmap to deliver your services, and gives you confidence to survive and thrive during crunch time. It also relieves you from the mental pressure. Here are several key elements to consider:
- Reevaluate your tech stack: Technology is ever-evolving. There are always better and more advanced tools to help automate your processes and provide efficiency. Evaluate your current tech stack to see if you need a replacement.
- Delegate: Assess your current assignments and responsibilities to see if there are any tasks that can be delegated to your team. This will allow you to focus on more important tasks. For example, you may want to be responsible for reviewing the tax return; however, data input can be easily delegated to a team member.
- Prioritize: Evaluate the list of tasks to decide the priority. For example, it may not be important to discuss planning for the next period while you are trying to close the current period. This will free up your time to focus on timely service delivery of more current time-sensitive projects.
- Train and learn: This is the most important step in the planning phase. Whether it is a new tool or application you are planning to implement, or changes in laws related to compliance, you must spend time learning and getting well trained prior to using them. I would like to acknowledge the time my company and the entire tax and accounting community spent understanding the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to help clients and small businesses.
- Avoid interruptions: Distractions and work interruptions add to stress during crunch time. Some of the interruptions are unplanned and end up becoming very costly. Therefore, it is important to be prepared for interruptions by establishing proper expectations.
Break the monotonous pattern of routine tasks to bring back your enthusiasm! Repetitive work and boredom are major factors affecting productivity and burnout. Here are some tips to refocus:
- Take a break: Get up from that chair for a coffee or beverage break for a few minutes every couple of hours. Look away from your computer to read a couple of pages in that favorite book. Surf some news channels or sports websites. Make sure to include those minutes of relaxation when you estimate the time for project delivery.
- Five-minute workouts: While your mind needs a break, your body needs stimulation. From time to time, stretch your legs. There are a variety of tips and videos available on the internet to help work out during office hours. A fit body with a fit mind can create wonders in the workplace.
- Hydrate: Studies suggest that a hydrated body has better cognitive skills and mental performance. I often use a phone app to remind me to drink water. I also use a very small bottle that forces me to make more trips to refill the bottle. This solves the purpose of taking breaks.
- Communicate your stress: One of the best ways to get rid of stress is to communicate. Reach out for help. Call your friends or family and talk it out. That five-minute phone call may give you some valuable productive hours.
- Socialize: When you feel overwhelmed, step out of your office and talk to the person next to you. If you are comfortable communicating non-work matters with your coworkers, it gives both of you a secure feeling that results in a stress-free, productive, and effective work environment. If you’re at home, talk to your family.
Mitigate burnout with team members
Along with you, your team’s efficiency and mental health are also important to survive busy season. It is equally important to monitor and mitigate burnout within your team. In our organization, we use the following methods to provide the best working conditions for our employees. This not only motivates them to perform above average, but also keeps their mental health in check.
- Provide adequate resources: Ensure your team has the right tools and required resources to deliver the tasks. This will elevate their trust in management and boost their motivation.
- Educate and train for seasonal pressure: The element of surprise may not work in our favor during busy season. It is always advisable to educate the team about the requirement to work extra hours, for example. You should be very transparent while hiring and training team members, and communicate the right expectations.
- Encourage participation during the planning phase: Something we practice in our organization is to allow the team to participate during the planning phase. This will give them a sense of importance, and helps us understand their viewpoints to identify the right skillset for the right tasks.
- Provide flexibility: When the team is already working endless hours, finding ways to manage work-life balance will help them stay focused and motivated. You can provide time and place flexibility that is convenient to them. This reinforces their confidence in the organization and will also positively affect productivity.
- Appreciate and compensate for hard work: A well-appreciated, well-recognized employee has much more drive and motivation to deliver. That is why it is very important to acknowledge and compensate for hard work and contributions.
If not addressed in time, workplace burnout may result in mental and physical exhaustion. Depending on the extremity, it may result in employee turnover or professional changes. Burnout is more than just the physical effects of extreme fatigue; it may lead to other health issues. It is very important to pay attention to the early signs of burnout and take all measures to prevent it.