CPA INSIDER

6 tips for mitigating and recovering from burnout

Get to the root of your burnout and take steps to reengage with your work.
By Hannah Pitstick

If you've been feeling more exhausted, cynical, and ineffective than usual this past year, you're not alone.

Three-quarters of more than 1,500 respondents to an August survey from FlexJobs and Mental Health America reported experiencing burnout at work in 2020, with 40% attributing that burnout directly to the pandemic.

While burnout was a serious and growing problem prior to COVID-19, the pandemic exacerbated the issue.

"The hardest part with the pandemic is we don't know when it's going to end," said Paula Davis, J.D., founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute based in Milwaukee and author of the upcoming book Beating Burnout at Work. "That's the thing that's psychologically tasking for so many people because our brains hate uncertainty."

Given the level of widespread burnout finance professionals are coping with this year, Davis argued that accountants will need to find ways to rebalance their lives and rebuild their professional energy as the nation continues to grapple with the pandemic.

Unfortunately, recovering from burnout isn't as simple as taking a spa day, because it's typically a systemic problem that requires holistic strategies.

"Most of the conversation tends to focus on the individual, and what individuals can do to get better at preventing burnout, but in reality that's only a small percentage of the burnout-prevention puzzle," Davis said.

She explained that we're often focused on the symptoms level, which is the exhaustion and cynicism, rather than looking at what truly causes burnout, which are things like low levels of autonomy, leadership support, recognition, and transparency. With that in mind, here are some strategies for both mitigating and addressing the root causes of burnout at your accounting firm.

Differentiate between stress and burnout. True burnout is not the same as just feeling stressed, so the first step is to determine where you fall on the burnout continuum. Rachel Montañez, a career coach and speaker based in Orlando, Fla., says many people blur the line between burnout and stress, which is why she created a career burnout quiz. Burnout is a condition that results from chronic professional stress, with typical symptoms of energy depletion, cynicism, and inefficacy, while stress alone is a temporary condition.

Davis recommends people measure their stress levels throughout the week as a way to develop and track what she calls "stress awareness." She explained that burnout and stress exist on a continuum, and not everybody is in the same spot all the time, so if you are finding yourself on the higher end of stress or feeling like you're burned out, take notice and identify the root causes. Once you've pinpointed what's contributing to your burnout, you can begin to address the issues.

Talk to someone you trust. It's going to be much more difficult, or even impossible, to address burnout on your own.

"At some point, if you're truly burned out, you have to let somebody know about it," Davis said. "It's going to be hard to pretend it's not happening and continue to work at a fast pace."

She recommends having a conversation with your manager, a trusted colleague, mentor, or health care professional, and explaining how you're feeling and seeing whether anything can be done to deal with the issue.

Having any type of mentor or sponsor within the organization or your team, someone you feel you can confide in and rely on, is always important, she added. If you don't already have one, work to build a support system of co-workers and mentors and pay attention to the health and quality of your relationships at work. These connections are often highly motivational and energy-giving and can help to mitigate burnout.

Set firm boundaries around your time. The boundary between our work lives and personal lives has all but collapsed as a result of the shift to remote work. In order to reinstate a healthy balance, Davis recommends setting meaningful boundaries and saying "no" to more nonessential requests.

"I know that can be hard for high-achieving professionals to do because we are people pleasers and we like to say 'yes' to everything," she said.

Make an effort to completely step away from work at the end of the day and over the weekend, so you can give yourself time to recover.

"Be present on the weekends, turn your notifications off, and write a list of things you did accomplish during the week," Montañez said.

Strive to achieve the 20% rule. Davis argued that burnout can be prevented or mitigated when professionals spend up to 20% of their time performing the most meaningful aspects of their work.

If you're feeling cynical or disengaged in your role, take some time to identify what you find most important and meaningful about your work and then make an effort to build more of those tasks into your workweek. For example, if you realize that interacting with clients creates the most meaning for you, find a way to do more client-facing work throughout the week.

In order to reach that 20% mark, you may find you need to delegate or automate some of your less meaningful work, which could be a challenge at first.

"Delegating is really hard for people who are perfectionists, or high-achievers, because it means giving up or relinquishing some control," Davis said.

If that's you, start small and see if you can delegate administrative tasks like scheduling meetings using an app or following up with clients using automated messages, and then build on that.

Take micro breaks. Quality breaks are essential to both preventing and recovering from burnout. Unfortunately, our culture tends to venerate overwork and constant productivity, and as a result, many people feel guilty about taking breaks.

If you struggle with that, Davis recommends taking what she calls "micro breaks" of 5 to 10 minutes in the morning or afternoon during the workday and doing something that feels good for you, whether that's exercise, eating breakfast with your kids, or listening to 10 minutes of an inspirational podcast. The important thing is figuring out something that works for you and making it a habit.

Eventually you should take a longer break and a real vacation, but Davis pointed out that those who are dealing with burnout struggle to take time off because they know they will return to a buildup of work and end up feeling more anxious than before they left.

"We know from research that you will feel better when you go on vacation," she said. "But when you go back to work, the burnout level you had pre-vacation will come back within a matter of weeks, so to me that's proof that this is a systemic problem."

Combat systemic workplace issues with colleagues. If you've done everything you can to address your burnout, but nothing seems to be working, you may need to tackle the underlying systemic issues.

"It may be that you have a lack of resources and so you can't effectively do your job," Montañez said. "Realize that and don't blame yourself for what's not in your control."

For example, if your manager isn't giving you enough autonomy or support, or workloads aren't being properly distributed, you should consider having a frank conversation with him or her to see if that can be addressed.

Most of the time, these issues aren't isolated events, so there's a good chance others in the office are struggling with similar problems. Have conversations with colleagues so you can surface the issues, and then consider scheduling a meeting with management.

"There is power in numbers, so if you feel uncomfortable having a conversation one-on-one with somebody in your organization about the levels of stress, go in with other people," Davis said.

During these conversations, Montañez recommends being open, mentioning incidents where you've performed well during a fast-paced, demanding time, and coming with clear options on how you see your workload lightening.

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. 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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