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Keeping fresh: How to prevent burnout

Michael Levitt | May 2021 Footnote

Editor's note: Updated April 30, 2021

Burnout among CPAs and financial professionals happens when people are in a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. 

I know how draining burnout can be because I lived through it. There were a few key contributors to my burnout:
  1. I wasn’t eating properly. My diet consisted of ordering through a window and then driving around a corner to pay and get handed a brown bag.
  2. I was under an increasing amount of stress with my job. Working for a startup is not easy. This one was even more challenging due to the nature of the work and the lack of boundaries I had in the work I performed.
  3. I was trying to please too many people — contributing at a high level at working, being a pillar in a small community, making a difference in helping others. I forgot to help myself first.
This article touches on some rather obvious tropes of burnout, but sometimes we need to be reminded of them because it’s easy to feel we’re the exception to all of the disclaimers we see.

How burnout manifests 

Burnout occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained and unable to meet constant demands. Busy tax and auditing seasons definitely contribute to burnout; further, with the constant changes to tax laws, physical distancing and having clients meet via Zoom instead of in person, stressful situations are compounding.

Signs of burnout aren’t too hard to suss out. They include:
  • Poor sleep habits: You’re groggy or overly tired on Zoom calls.
  • Lost motivation: You no longer seem to have the drive to perform.
  • Increased mistakes and poor memory: You’re making more mistakes than normal and you’re forgetful.
  • Decision-making challenges: You struggle to give clear responses to questions.
  • Irritability: You’re arguing more with co-workers and management.

Start with the obvious

To rectify burnout, you need time to recharge. Now, I’m not talking about an hour of yoga or meditation, though that can surely help in the ongoing battle of burnout. I’m talking about using your paid time off. In a pandemic world, most people are reluctant to take vacation time because they associate vacations with traveling somewhere. Staycations are helpful, too, if proper boundaries around work are used.

According to U.S. Travel Association research, Americans left 768 million days of paid time off unused in 2019. The group also found that 55 percent of Americans did not use all of their paid vacation time.

Another step is to establish boundaries around working hours as best you can. Encouraging loved ones (and yourself) to find time to recharge is crucial to maintain wellbeing among you and your colleagues.

Get proper sleep 

Maintaining a no-work hours policy and creating habits to get 7-8 hours of restful sleep is critical for healing your body and mind. Unfortunately, for many, their sleep isn’t of the quality variety. Our bodies heal while we are sleeping from the daily damage (both intentional and unintentional) throughout our waking hours. A lack of sleep significantly increases the chances of chronic diseases, fatigue, mistakes, emotional and physical challenges, etc.

We each go through stages of sleep and sleep cycles, but what’s crucial is having as much uninterrupted sleep as possible. Too often, people are either not getting enough sleep, or not enough restful sleep.

With my burnout, my sleep was spent repairing all the damage I was doing to my body, both mentally and physically. Eventually, my body gave in, and kicked off my year of worst-case scenarios.

Now I sleep pretty well. I have a pillow that works for me. The room temperature is conducive to my liking. I have a sleep mask in case it’s too bright outside through the window blinds. I don’t consume a lot of caffeine or alcohol. I eat better and, most importantly, I have boundaries about my work and home life.

You, too, can make these changes. I promise it’ll make a difference.

Embrace the outdoors

We spend way too much time indoors. You need to — as soon as you finish reading this magazine — get outside. Once there, leave the smartphone in your pocket. Notice what’s going on around you.

We’re always connected — connected to our phones, our thoughts, our co-workers, our loved ones. We rarely disconnect. Remember when you were in areas with poor cellphone coverage? It’s hard to find those places these days. Even many campgrounds now offer Wi-Fi. Not quite roughing it.

When was the last time you took a walk outside with the intention to go for a walk and not walking to get to a destination? For some, it may have been years since you did that type of exercise. Our minds are cluttered with thoughts, worries and concerns. We rarely sit in silence or get outside and listen to the sounds that are around us.

Even in the concrete jungles of our cities, you can calm yourself by simply listening to the sounds of the city. Embracing nature is crucial for taking a detox from our digital lives. Just 20 minutes a day in nature can reduce cortisol, the stress hormone.

Here’s some homework for you. Tomorrow, go for a walk. Walk for 10 minutes. It’s that simple. Then start doing this three times each week. If you want to drive to a nearby park and then walk around, go for it. Do it during daylight hours (and, as always, be aware of your surroundings; don’t be foolish!).

Notice what you hear and what you see. I’ll give you a pass if you want to take pictures of some nature scenes. But don’t post them immediately on Instagram. It can wait.

Consider your diet

Whether you do some cursory searching yourself or seek guidance from a dietitian or nutritionist, a healthier approach to your food intake gives you the natural energy to perform and navigate stressful situations without the sugary and highly caffeinated “pick-me-ups” that are often the go-to for people, especially during busier times.

Following these simple habits will help reduce your stress, which will aid in ending your burned-out state.

Now what?

Addressing your sleep, increasing your time spent away from digital devices and altering your diet may seem like overly obvious steps in combatting burnout.

But, sometimes, we need to hear the obvious because we’re conditioned to believe we are somehow special. We’ve convinced ourselves that we can skimp on a few hours of sleep each night and continue with the diets we liberally leaned into in college. It’s simply not true, and it will catch up with you if it hasn’t already.

I implore you to reflect today and start incremental changes tomorrow. 

Michael Levitt is the founder and chief burnout officer of The Breakfast Leadership Network, a San Diego- and Toronto-based burnout media firm. He is an in-person and certified virtual speaker, a certified NLP and CBT therapist, a Fortune 500 consultant and author of the new book “Burnout Proof.” You may reach him at michael@breakfastleadership.com.