Whether you call it tax season or, as I like to, opportunity season, one of the downsides is the potential for team member burnout before, during or after the April 17 deadline. The corporate and individual tax deadlines are brutal in a normal year, but when you couple that with the recent tax law changes and all the uncertainty around them, you’d better brace yourself.
Recognizing that burnout can happen is important. Good leaders are alert to the possibility because they understand the risks.
On the positive side, firm leaders should always remember that accounting is a noble profession. Most accountants have tasks that they enjoy every day in their work. For some, it is the thrill of solving highly technical questions and preparing recommendations and solutions for clients. For others, it is helping clients get to the next level in their business. Many build lifelong friendships with clients. Working in the accounting industry is a rewarding experience. The impact CPAs and financial professionals have on people’s businesses and lives is truly exceptional.
It’s easy to forget all of this when you or someone on your team becomes burnt out. A three-month stretch of long hours and unrelenting deadlines can sap the strength of even the most motivated team members. Balancing the demands of work and home can be tricky during high-stress times like tax season, which makes it critical to block some time for rest and rejuvenation. Staff can begin to show symptoms of increased fatigue, insomnia, trouble concentrating, anxiety, and even depression. This can be a major drain on the individual, the team and, ultimately, the firm’s culture.
Perks or policy?
Many firms try to alleviate the stress of the season by offering perks like meals and massages, and that’s great. But teams are made up of individuals who have different needs, even different time clocks. Some people work best in the morning while others are more productive in the evening. Some work better under pressure than others. Those traits don’t change just because it’s tax season. A rest-and-renewal cycle should be part of everyday life, but often it’s not. Especially during peak busy times, firm leaders’ primary focus is on getting the work done on time. The pace is frantic. The people struggle to keep up. Burnout is almost inevitable under these conditions.
By taking a step back and recognizing the daily toll on staff, firm leaders can make incremental changes to their expectations.
No single answer will work for everyone. No single policy will suit every firm. Nevertheless, the goal should be allowing for some sort of program that minimizes the risk of burnout. It may be hard to do this during busy season, but even then allowing remote work or being flexible about the number of hours worked can help. Initiatives live these may pay real dividends over the long term.
Rest and recovery
Once busy season is over, it is important to look around. Did anyone seem particularly stressed or overwhelmed? Is there a firm policy that seemed to affect people negatively?
Most health experts agree that people need time to wind down, to rest and recover after stressful periods. They generally suggest self-care along the lines of eating well and sleeping at least eight hours every night for a period of time. Individuals may not feel completely in control of taking the time they need to rest, so it is up to firm leadership to help facilitate this where possible.
Firm leaders will be well-served by making it easy for individuals to take the time they need to rest and recover. This is true year-round. There are lots of things leaders can do to alleviate stress on staff, including delegating or reassigning tasks, changing priorities or adding muscle to projects that need additional resources, and having a generous paid time-off policy.
The symptoms of burnout may go unnoticed, but their effect on performance will be obvious. Poor performance doesn’t do anyone any favors. It trickles down from the individual level to teams. Before long, it has a negative effect on firm culture.
It’s best to get ahead of this as a firm leader and educate your team on the importance of self-care and recovery. If you notice someone becoming overly exhausted, it might be best to offer them support or encouragement to take the time they need to recover so that when they do, they will be refreshed and energized to get to work.
A 24/7/365 issue
Firm leaders should work to encourage a culture of balance and health throughout the year. Exhaustion is typically linked to not placing a priority on nutrition, a lack of sleep, and stress management. Essentially, the problem isn’t simply overworking, it’s under-recovery. There is so much work to do, it is easy to place rest and recovery on the back burner.
We are only human -- and ambitious professionals at that! Internal client or team member-focused initiatives around health and celebration promote a strong team of motivated individuals. Retention of key team members is so important and leaders should be aware of ways to make sure they stay healthy, balanced and engaged.