Taxing times: How to manage stress during the busy season

Prolonged stress can lead to anxiety, burnout and depression. The key is to act early rather than try to push through it.

With constant change on the horizon, these are testing times for many professionals, which makes it ever more important to reduce stress levels in your practice and boost productivity.

By Zilla Efrat

Despite its many rewards, being an accountant or tax agent is demanding. This October is Mental Health Month in New South Wales and coincides with the World Health Organisation’s recognition of World Mental Health Day, which is celebrated on the10th – making it a good time to think about cutting stress.

Change equals stress

Change and disruption create a lot of uncertainty for practitioners. Then of course there are the long hours and pressures ahead of tax and reporting seasons, which in combination can threaten work-life balance.

Poor stress management can lead to poor health and potentially reduce productivity which, in turn, can not only damage your practice but adversely affect your quality of life.

“While we don’t have any specific statistics for accounting and tax professionals, what we do know more broadly is that one in five Australians will experience a mental health condition in any year and you’d expect that to occur across workplaces,” says Patrice O’Brien, general manager workplace at beyondblue, an independent non-profit organisation that works to address depression, anxiety disorders and related mental health issues.

“Some may be coping well and still be productive, but some may be struggling.”

The plight of sole practitioners

O’Brien notes that sole practitioners and other small business owners often have to deal with many additional challenges. 

“They feel very responsible for their employees and may feel quite alone because they don’t necessarily have a big team around them to rely on,” she says. 

Related: Tools, templates and checklists to help you run your tax practice

“Very often, they are extremely time-poor. Plus, the lines between work and non-work can become blurred, particularly with technology being what it is today. It can be very difficult to switch off.”  

O'Brien warns that people do not commonly recognise the consequences of stress until it’s almost too late. 

“Prolonged stress can lead to anxiety, burnout and depression. The key is to act early rather than try to push through it. If you get the right support in place, you won’t have to miss a day at work.” 

According to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), it’s important to identify warning signs – “red flags” – that may signal a need to reach out for support. Common symptoms include:

  • Finding it hard to concentrate
  • Avoiding necessary day-to-day tasks and obligations
  • Feeling irritable, stressed or teary
  • Constantly thinking of work, even during personal time
  • Inability to sleep
  • Disconnecting from friends and family
  • Changed eating and/or drinking habits.
If these symptoms persist, it’s important to take action. 

“The earlier people take that step, the better chance they have of it not becoming a more serious condition,” O’Brien advises.

She recommends sitting down to identify what, exactly, is causing work-related stress and more importantly, the best ways to resolve it. 

“It will be different for different people,” she explains. “It’s really about getting to know yourself and what’s too much for you and how you can manage that. It’s also about ensuring you have people you can talk to.”

Generally speaking, even simple measures can help reduce stress during busy times. For example, you could encourage clients to improve their record keeping so that they are better prepared at EOFY. 

Send out checklists to remind clients about the documents and information they need to collect and consider ways to encourage them to submit that information as early as practically possible to avoid a bottleneck come crunch time.

Heads Up, a joint initiative by the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance and beyondblue, is a national approach by business, community and government to encourage Australian workplaces to become mentally healthy. It recommends attempting to avoid long working hours as they can far too easily become the norm, and before you know it there is not much room for anything but work. 

To stop stress from becoming unmanageable, it is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle. According to Heads Up:

  • Try different relaxation techniques and find one that works for you and which you enjoy; for example, meditation and reading, connecting with the natural environment, gardening or listening to music.
  • Download a meditation app like Smiling Mind for your phone or tablet. Starting or finishing a day with “mindfulness meditation” may assist in managing stress.
  • Develop good sleeping habits. Stick to a regular sleep pattern, even on weekends. Wind down at least 30 minutes before going to bed and create a comfortable sleeping environment free of anything that is work-related, as well as phones, television and laptops.
  • Develop an interest or personal hobby outside of your business that you can share with friends or family.

Professional Development: Optimising your work/life balance - taking control of your stress: this course will explain how the signs and symptoms of stress could be of physiological, behavioural, and psychological nature and where these stresses can come from.

Hone time management skills

Smarter time management may also help. Kate Christie, CEO of Time Stylers, recommends auditing how you currently spend your time across a two- to three-day period. Recording each task performed –including every interruption and distraction – will reveal exactly where and how you are losing precious time. 

Ask yourself: What tasks can I reject? What can I delegate? What should I prioritise? What can I do differently, or not at all?

“Consider when you are most energetic during the day and use that time for your most important tasks, as opposed to emails or administration,” Christie suggests. “Also, stop multitasking at work.”

According to Christie, on average, every time you multitask (or allow an interruption or distraction), productivity plummets by up to 40 per cent. 

“If you constantly juggle more than one task at a time then, at best, you are operating at 60 per cent of your available productivity,” she says. 

It’s also vital to build physical activity into your day and to make time for exercise and, if you run your own practice or manage others, to incorporate physical initiatives into the workplace. 

Research by the Black Dog Institute (which aims to reduce the incidence of mental illness and the stigma around it) shows that even small amounts of exercise can boost serotonin and endorphin levels, which can aid the treatment and prevention of mental illnesses and stress. The process can also boost productivity.

Give email a rest

Black Dog Institute’s Dr Caryl Barnes recommends introducing activities such as “walking meetings” and email-free days, where all communication is face-to-face.  

“It can be as simple as getting people to walk between floors and desks,” she maintains.

However, if anxiety and/or depression persists you should never try to just shrug off what far too many still think are “moody blues”. It could be a very serious and potentially highly dangerous condition, and if you are struggling with it, it is absolutely imperative to either make an immediate appointment with your GP, a mental health professional or contact organisations such as beyondblue or Black Dog Institute.

ATO support

In tough times, you can also contact the ATO. 

“The ATO supports tax professionals who are experiencing hardship – including physical or mental ill-health – [through a range of means] including deferrals and stays of action to suit individual circumstances,” says an ATO spokesperson.

“We encourage tax professionals in need of support to contact us as soon as possible through the complex issues resolution service. Professional associations are also able to seek support for their members through the same service and we will work with them and their members to provide joint support.”

Read next: 5 ways behavioural science can help you have a better workday

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