CPA INSIDER

5 tips for avoiding burnout

Working smarter and with more self-care can help you enjoy work.
By Dawn Wotapka

Two decades ago, Tom Wheelwright, CPA, was working more than 3,500 hours each year — 100 hours a week at times — so much that he put a sofa in his office for sleeping.

It was, he recalled, a pace he couldn't keep up.

"I was done," he said. "I knew that I had to do something different."

That "done" epiphany was attributed to burnout, a stress-caused feeling of being overwhelmed that can take a toll on one's emotions, mental health, and physical well-being.

"Burnout is defined by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy," said Robert L. Bogue, a consultant and co-author of the recently released book Extinguish Burnout.

Looking back, Wheelwright, who is based in Tempe, Ariz., realized his burnout was caused by a combination of too much time at work and too little time working on himself. His solution was to leave his public accounting job to be an author and speaker running multiple companies focused on helping entrepreneurs reduce taxes and build wealth, pursuits he continues to enjoy.

Wheelwright's story is common. About two-thirds of U.S. full-time employees in a variety of professions feel burned out at work at least sometimes, according to research firm Gallup. These employees are 63% more likely to use a sick day and 2.6 times more likely to be job hunting. And those who aren't looking for another job are half as likely to address performance goals with leadership.

"Employee burnout can trigger a downward spiral in individual and organizational performance," Gallup noted in its 2018 report.

It doesn't have to be like this. To reduce — or even eliminate — the chance of burnout, follow these tips:

Delegate. A good starting point is to examine your workload to determine what routine or lower-level tasks others can handle, freeing you for more impactful, strategic, and higher-value work, said Robert Gauvreau, CPA (Canada), founding partner of Gauvreau & Associates, a provider of accounting, tax, bookkeeping, and advisory services to entrepreneurs and businesses. "The ego of a CPA, since I am one, suggests that no one can answer the question like I can," said Gauvreau, who is based in Canada. "The sooner we can eliminate this mindset is the day we get our life back."

Examine your toolbox. Meanwhile, examine what you're doing and consider whether a website or app can handle the work. Scheduling on calendars can be done electronically, while numerous services offer ways to manage the frequently overflowing email inbox.

"Automate, automate, automate," said Adam Slack, founder of Two Roads, a provider of bookkeeping, CFO, and assistant services based in Knoxville, Tenn. "Someone has figured out how to do big parts of your job better than you can with a piece of software. Go find it."

Other ideas to boost productivity include making clear to-do lists ahead of time to help with time management and scheduling uninterrupted time to answer emails, attend to administrative tasks, or work on key projects, Gauvreau said. "Without interruptions, you will accomplish more in less time," he said.

Another suggestion is scheduling phone calls to avoid time-consuming phone tag. This "will get you a significant portion of your day back," Gauvreau said.

Keep learning. Meanwhile, keep growing and developing professionally by attending local networking events, professional conferences, and continuing education courses. Rob Stephens, who has been a CPA for a quarter century, credits "constantly expanding the boundaries of my expertise" for avoiding burnout.

He started his career as a staff accountant at EY, but his jobs have also included controller, chief financial officer, senior vice president of finance, and, most recently, founder of CFO Perspective, a financial consulting firm in Spokane Valley, Wash. Along the way, he got a master's degree in personal financial planning with a graduate certificate in financial therapy, which allowed him to manage a financial advisory group. 

Focus on you. Don't forget to take care of yourself each day. Accountant Matthew Iamelli rides his bike to work, completes a full-body workout most days, and aims for 20 minutes of sunlight each day. "It boils down to scheduling and exercise," said Iamelli, with accounting firm Mria Group, based in Nashua, N.H. He also likes to find opportunities in a social setting where he can talk to "anyone about anything other than accounting."

Take an extended break. In addition to regular self-care, Iamelli urges accountants to disconnect and decompress away from the office for at least seven full days — two weeks if possible — once busy season ends. (Check out tips for reducing stress during busy season here.) He suggests ensuring someone trustworthy is empowered to handle unexpected issues in your absence so you're truly able to unplug.

"Reading on a beach, skiing on a mountain, camping in a forest — basically anything that gets your eyes away from a computer screen," he suggested.

By using these tips, you can help stop burnout before it starts or reverse its course. "Life is good," according to Wheelwright. Instead of doing everything, he said, "my time is spent doing only those things that nobody else on the team can do."

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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