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Stress management: COVID-19, tax time and the sum of our fears

From a client’s perspective, CPAs are the antidote to complex – and occasionally overwhelming – financial stress. This year, with the coronavirus pandemic and growing global uncertainty, the job is more difficult than ever. When it comes to severe stress, who helps the accountants?

Anyone who has done it knows that running an accounting practice can be a stressful undertaking. However, the COVID-19 crisis has taken it to a whole new level imposing unprecedented levels of financial and psychological pressure.

Coping with this type of stress is not easy, but with the right attitude and appropriate tools it can be done, and possibly the experience of adversity can provide an even greater level of personal resilience and strength.

An irony is that the clients of accounting practices are increasingly looking to their advisers as a voice of stability, reassurance and control. 

Anecdotal evidence indicates that many practices have seen revenue drop by 30 to 40 per cent, or even more. Many CPAs have continued to provide services to clients with reduced or no charges, which will help to build relationships for the long term but puts more strain on the short-term bottom line. In other words, the pressure has gone up while the returns have gone down.

Dr Grant Blashki, lead clinical adviser with Beyond Blue, an organisation dedicated to improving the mental health of Australians, explains that people in business need to consciously maintain their mental wellbeing.

“The usual commonsense approaches to maintaining mental wellbeing still apply,” he says. “This involves keeping up regular exercise, eating well, getting enough sleep, creating regular routines and making time for friends and family. 

“Some particular issues that are important during the pandemic are using online technologies to stay connected with people who are important to you and being clear about work and home-life boundaries. Don’t let the problems mount up.”

Breaking the stress cycle

Warning signs that stress is turning into a serious health problem include constant fatigue, low energy and disrupted sleep. 

Other symptoms include withdrawal from usual engagement with work and friends, a noticeable drop in performance and obsessing about negative themes. There may be a need for professional help and there should be a readiness to seek it as required.

For people working from home, it is important to establish a routine, including regular contact with colleagues. There are unhelpful behaviours that should be avoided, such as staying up late and then sleeping in, or substance abuse. 

Richard Maloney, author of Stress Free: How to Thrive Under Pressure in Unprecedented Times, and CEO of Quality Mind Global, a consulting firm specialising in mindfulness in the workplace, recognises the pressures that many accountants are under. He emphasises the importance of allowing yourself to de-stress and refocus.

Meditation is beneficial but simply listening to relaxing music can also be helpful, as can “walking meditation”. The aim is to break the cycle of stress.

“You need to schedule time away from work pressure, to clear the mind and minimise negative thinking patterns,” he says. 

“Another good idea, if pressure is piling up, is to make a ‘gratitude list’ to shift your focus from your problems to the good things in your life. 

“If you feel that stress is pushing you into a conflict mentality, try going for 24 hours without saying anything negative. This will make you conscious of yourself and your feelings.”

How business advisers can take the pressure off

Dr Blashki points out that Beyond Blue has designed a website called Heads Up*, which provides useful articles, videos and interviews for people in business. It includes a guide for business advisers on how they can maintain their own mental health as well as help others.

Despite the difficulties of the current situation there is also the opportunity to deepen client relationships. 

“There is so much uncertainty in business right now that clients will be looking for leadership, advice and initiatives from their providers – and more than just numbers,” says Maloney. 

“It’s OK to extend conversations beyond financial issues, and to ask a client how they are weathering this storm at the psychological level. No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Another possibility is to run workshops for clients on building mental resilience and providing resources on mental health as well as business management in tough times. Maloney believes that helping others is an essential way to reduce one’s own stress. 

“If you are more focused on others you are less likely to obsess about your own problems. In the end we are all here to help and serve each other, and we can attain a great sense of accomplishment from doing that,” he says.

Dr Blashki agrees with this theme. “One of the positive outcomes of this pandemic has been a recognition of the fragility of other people’s lives,” he notes. 

“It has reminded us how dependent we all are on each other. Assisting others, whether with business advice or simply a compassionate ear, can all contribute to a sense of community. That [contribution] will be greatly appreciated.”

This article was originally published in IN THE BLACK