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Taking burnout into account

Benefits of a mental health balance sheet

Randy Crabtree, CPA | February/March 2024 Footnote

Are you tired all the time? Are you uninterested in your work and questioning why you became an accountant? Is your efficiency slipping? If so, you may be suffering from chronic stress and — if left untreated — your chronic stress can lead to burnout, depression and a host of physical issues.

According to a study by the University of Georgia and FloQast, an accounting software company, 99% of accountants suffer from burnout, exhaustion, feelings of inefficiency and alienation from their job at some point in their careers.

Similarly, a recent study by AICPA and PwC found 51% of team leaders in accounting and finance feel symptoms of professional burnout.

Chronic stress can have adverse physical and chemical effects on your brain. If you keep telling yourself, “I just need the power through April 15 and then everything’s going to be fine,” you’re just fooling yourself — I should know.

Ten years ago, I almost let the stress of my job kill me. It wasn’t until I had a stroke at 51 that I finally got the help I needed and made the necessary changes to my work and personal life.

The impact of too much stress: My story

Tri-Merit, the firm I co-founded, grew incredibly fast during its first decade. It was exhilarating to be part of that ride, but I was burning the candle at both ends trying to be the managing partner and the chief rainmaker bringing in the business. I kept trying to power through it all — until I had a stroke at 51 and then a second stroke four days later.

For the next five years, I suffered from PTSD, panic attacks, depression and feelings of hopelessness. It wasn’t until I stepped away from day-to-day operations, made my health my first priority and found a talk therapist, that I finally started to recover. It was a long road back.

As CPAs, we tend to be obsessive about details. We try to control everything so it’s always in perfect balance. But that’s not how life — or business — works. When feeling overloaded, I know many of you lean in and tell yourself, “I’ll just put in more hours and work a little harder until I catch up to my to-do list.” So, we send out messages all night long. We look at emails at 3 a.m. and set unrealistic expectations for ourselves and our teams.

But the to-do list keeps getting longer and things start to snowball until you end up quitting your job or have a mental or physical breakdown like I had — or worse.

Stress versus mental illness

The first step to addressing chronic stress is to understand what it is and isn’t. While stress and mental illness are both serious conditions, they shouldn’t be lumped together.

Mental illness is a condition that adversely affects a person’s thinking, feeling, behavior or mood. These conditions deeply impact daily living and may also affect your ability to relate to others.

Stress, by contrast, is not a mental health condition. It’s a feeling of emotional or physical tension, such as having too much to do and not enough time or help to do it. Stress can be triggered by any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry or nervous.

If left untreated, stress can lead to burnout and potentially lead to mental health problems like anxiety and depression over time.

It’s important to remember that short-term stress is not necessarily a bad thing. Short-term stress causes us to avoid danger or to meet an urgent deadline. But you can’t have these adrenaline-aided bouts of hyper-productivity day in and day out for months or years at a time.

Your brain and body aren’t equipped to be in overdrive all the time and sooner or later it will break down. That’s where burnout comes in.

What is burnout?

Burnout results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one’s job.
  3. Reduced professional efficacy.
Here are some common reasons why we may feel burned out:
  • We think we need to help everyone.
  • We know the problems and want to fix them.
  • Working harder and longer to catch up.
  • “I’ll just do it myself because it will get done faster.”
  • Never-ending deadlines and client chasing.
  • Bad clients (nonpaying, rude, late).
Sound familiar? Let’s use the “burnout balance sheet” on page 16 to do a quick mental health check.

Do two or more of these questions apply to you?

  • Unusual and unexplained fatigue.
  • Headaches or negative physical symptoms.
  • Sleeping too little or too much.
  • Eating more or less than normal.
  • Feeling irritable and/or sad on a consistent basis.
  • Dreading your workday.

These count as debits on your balance sheet.

Add up your burnout debits here _____________.

Here are some ways to reduce stress and minimize your risk of burnout:
  • Go for walks during work hours and leave the phone behind.
  • Don’t eat at your desk.
  • Prioritize exercise and self-care.
  • Reduce exposure to job stressors.
  • Don’t send emails, text, Teams/Slack messages during off hours or weekends.
  • Practice serious self-care.
These count as credits on your balance sheet.

Add up your burnout credits here _____________.

Let’s tally up the numbers: (CREDITS) – (DEBITS) = ___________ .

If you or someone on your team has more credits than debits, they may be at risk of burnout and mental health challenges. Don’t let this go ignored.

Steps to reduce personal stress:
  1. Time management. Start taking control of your calendar rather than always reacting to client or team member emergencies. Carve out quality focus time to get your highvalue client work done. Identify the top three priorities for each day, week and month to concentrate on and move other to-dos to the “important but not urgent” pile.
  2. Learn to disconnect at the end of the day. As Brian Kush, CPA, PCC recommends: Bookmark your work at the end of the day, perform mental and physical shutdown practices, and set your priorities for the day ahead.
  3. Take frequent breaks. Research shows that humans can only focus fully for four to five hours a day, so take frequent breaks and let your brain clear.
  4. Self-care. Don’t sit at your desk all day long. Don’t eat at your desk, make sure to get plenty of exercise and rest. Try meditating and eating more nutritiously. Take walks during work hours and leave the phone behind.
  5. Help others on your team. If you’re a manager, stop modeling unhealthy work habits such as: in early, leaving late, working weekends; sending texts, emails, Teams messages at all hours; setting unrealistic expectations, etc. Instead, focus on making team members feel appreciated. My friend John Garret, a former Big Four auditor who became a successful podcaster and motivational speaker, said you only have to spend 40 seconds of quality time per day with each person on your team to make them feel valued.
Rethinking your practice to reduce collective stress
  1. Prune your client list. Get rid of the clients that are stressing you the most or who just aren’t profitable.
  2. Ditch the time sheets and stop selling hours. Change your billing strategy to focus on deliverables and client outcomes.
  3. Automate and delegate as much as possible.
  4. Stop trying to do everything. Develop strategic relationships with people who have expertise that you don’t have.
  5. Bring a mental health coach into the firm.
These five steps count as credits on your Mental Health Balance Sheet.

Taking care of mental health today for a healthier future

If you’re a firm leader or manager, don’t let anyone on your team feel ashamed to ask for help dealing with feelings of burnout, stress or simply feeling anxiety about not keeping up.

If you show others at your firm that’s it’s OK to be honest and vulnerable, then it shows it’s OK to ask for the help they need. Firms in which everyone supports each other always outperform and out-retain firms where it’s every person for themself.

When it comes to mental health, make sure everyone at your organization knows it’s OK to ask for help. It’s one of the best ways I know to recruit, train and retain the best talent in our profession.

Randy Crabtree, co-founder and partner of Tri-Merit Specialty Tax Professionals, is a widely followed author, lecturer and host of The Unique CPA podcast. You may reach him at 847-274-1480.