Burnout’s telltale signs and how leaders can better understand them

Hosted by Neil Amato

Burnout at work was a concern even before the COVID-19 pandemic quickly left so many people isolated. The components of burnout are heightened now, according to author Britt Andreatta, Ph.D., in a December interview.

In this episode of the Journal of Accountancy podcast, you can hear more about burnout and how it can affect overall mental health. Stefan van Duyvendijk, Accounting Operations Evangelist with FloQast, shares data about burnout among accountants, explains why some of us struggle to see the signs of burnout, and offers advice for managers.

Also, learn more about news on several fronts related to IRS audits: a report from the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office and a House of Representatives subcomittee hearing.

Here are several resources for Mental Health Awareness Month:

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • A gas pedal analogy for burnout.
  • Some of the signs of burnout.
  • An explanation of several survey datapoints on accountant-specific burnout.
  • How better perspective can help managers and staff see mental health red flags.
  • The distinction van Duyvendijk makes between managing and leading.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at


Neil Amato: Hello and welcome to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. We're glad you're back for another episode or just finding our show wherever you get your podcasts. This episode focuses on mental health awareness and specifically the topic of burnout among accountants. It also has news related to the IRS, and that's all coming up after this word from our sponsor.

Amato: Welcome back to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This is your host, Neil Amato. Joining me for this segment is Stefan van Duyvendijk, Accounting Operations Evangelist with FloQast. Stefan is going to talk to us on the topic of mental health. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and we're going to get right into the questions with him. First, Stefan, the word burnout, what does that mean to you?

Stefan van Duyvendijk: Thanks, Neil, I appreciate being here. I think burnout to me, it's a special type of work-specific stress, right? That's what we're talking about here. It can be a state often I think of emotional exhaustion that leads to physical exhaustion, and it really reduces your sense of accomplishment in ways and, it just depends on the individual, a loss of personal identity.

I think the best description I've ever seen or heard of burnout came from a friend of mine who was describing what he felt at one point in time and he said, "It was like I was stepping on the gas. I'd step on the accelerator, and there was no gas, I couldn't make it up the hill."

This was during a very specific busy season. Obviously, this guy made it through, but he was stepping on the accelerator. He could not get up the hill, and that really rang true to me. I think I felt that at many points in time in my life.

But when we talk about burnout, it's a prolonged version of that, right? It almost seems like it's not ending.

Amato: That's a really good analogy. I've never heard it before, and it really will stick with me, I think. Helping accountants deal with those signs of burnout, so that's my next question. What do you think are some of the signs of burnout?

Van Duyvendijk: I can speak [to] this from personal experience. I think a lot of people at some point have felt this. But I think one of the biggest ones that is very concerning is, where you get a sense of failure and self-doubt. A little bit more than any impostor syndrome, it seems like just a step beyond that. When you start feeling with your day-to-day tasks that you're either helpless, you're trapped, you just can't get your head above water, defeated.

I think a loss of motivation is really key, too, when you start seeing in yourself or in others on your team or your organization just not seem engaged, like there's just that. It's almost like there's a spark gone. That's a really clear sign.

One that can be subtle to really identify is increasing negative outlook or cynical outlook. And accountants, we always have this mentality of trust but verify. So we're always asking hard questions.

Sometimes it can be hard to see that, but if you see little changes in the outlook that they're just extra negative, they're extra cynical today, or you see that in yourself, and it's not always about work. Sometimes you see it just in their personal life when they talk about stuff. That's a really big sign, and then this one's hard to identify in others but on yourself, if you stop feeling a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment in what you're doing, that's a real telltale sign that you are experiencing levels of burnout.

Amato: There are many reasons that life in a pandemic can lead to increased burnout, but to you was the simple fact of isolation one of those reasons?

Van Duyvendijk: Yes, I think for a lot of us it was. I was fortunate that I didn't necessarily feel it from isolation. But I think many people that I worked with did feel it simply from that isolation being a catalyst to almost increasing the burnout rate.

Maybe it was there in small ways, but isolation really just exacerbated because they didn't have that moment with a colleague to chat during the day. They didn't get to unwind by driving to and from work. Sometimes for me that's a real cathartic experience, is this drive down a canyon where I just don't think about work anymore and I can break away from home. So I think it was really an unfortunate catalyst.

Amato: Now, I understand FloQast has a survey in the works, I guess, about burnout and mental health specific to accountants. Are there takeaways from that survey that stand out to you?

Van Duyvendijk: There are, and we coupled it with a few others. Before we even really got them into the survey, we were seeing really concerning trends with 40% of accountants considering new work, right? Whether that was within accounting or outside of accounting.

But when we got specifically to using really clear statistical methods with respondents to see how their levels of burnout were, we saw that one-fifth of the respondents were experiencing high levels of burnout.

Twenty percent of accountants were experiencing high levels of burnout, and these are people that are very close to an edge. So if you have a team of five, it is very likely one person on your team is really struggling, and it could be yourself.

If you look at above-average burnout, which is also just like the red zone, it's not good to even be above average here. We saw that nearly 40%, 38% of respondents had above-average burnout.

So now you're looking at your team and even if you're a team or two, the chances are that someone on your team, whether it's you or the other person, is experiencing burnout. So you have an individual that — you can dive deeper into this, but I think it's pretty easy for people to understand — that cannot function at their best. Nowhere near it. They're burning too hot, they can't maintain, and so they're going to be making bad decisions. They're going to be missing easy things. They're going to be even that much hampered by mundane tactical work, and they're really in a bad place.

If you're looking at their life, I mean, I think intrinsically we want to help everybody. But even from just a capitalistic point, you want to remove this barrier form because of how stressful it is to them and how stressful it is ultimately to the organization as well.

Amato: As I said at the top of the show, May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and our first guest on the podcast this month talked some about mental health struggles of her own after the death of her father. An email from a listener made a good point to me. The email said that mental health discussions shouldn't just be about how we're doing after a traumatic event, that depression can happen without a trigger.

Is that something that's hard for people to remember, that maybe people can be struggling with their mental health just because?

Van Duyvendijk: Yes, I think in reality that's a lot of what is going on. The reason someone struggling is a little bit immaterial at the end of the day. It doesn't really matter why. It matters that they're struggling. You intrinsically want to help them, and you want to fix that as much as possible.

Maybe understanding why can be really powerful to changing that, but the why doesn't really matter, the fact is that it is. You got to make sure that you focus on the right goal when you look at mental health and you look at burnout.

When I look at our organizations and how they struggle, I think one of the key things that we all struggle with within the organization is perspective. We have this lack of perspective or worldview of others, whether that's a manager to their direct report or employee to their manager, an executive to a staff-level person. We sometimes really lose perspective on what their life is like, and what their struggles are, and what their needs are, and it may be very hard to understand that.

But because of that, we think that, "Oh, well, there's nothing wrong because I don't see from my lens that anything could be wrong," and that's not the correct way to look at it. In fact, if you go to make a decision as a manager on assigning work to somebody and you don't consider their perspective, what they could be going through. Or you make a decision with imperfect data or information, which is never what you want to do. As accountants we hate that. We're so conservative in the way we like to go about things. We're so precise that we should never want to make these decisions without having that perspective.

So it's really key to not just assume once you hear something traumatic happened, that there could be an issue, but to ask and engage, as your last guest did. She talked a lot about, it's important to actually just ask the question and be regular about check-ins with people and make sure they consider these aspects of emotional health and mental health in them when you're considering what's going on.

If you do that, you will make much better decisions as a manager. You'll not over-burn someone, you won't increase the burnout. You'll be able to assist and help them in front of issues instead of being reactive once they say, "Hey, I'm leaving, and it's because I hate this here because I'm so stressed and burnt out and everything else." Which is never where you want to be because, oftentimes, you could have prevented that.

Amato: That advice leads nicely into the next question. I'm going to ask you for accountants in particular or accountant leaders. What advice would you give them to better manage their own mental health or that of their employees?

Van Duyvendijk: I think a lot of us want to be leaders within the broader organization, right? We want to bring our skill set and DNA to the broader organization. But before you can do that, you really need to demonstrate the ability to successfully lead, not manage, but lead the team that you have and the work that you have.

When doing this, if you think you're leading your team by not considering their burnout and their mental health, then you're incorrect. You're at best managing them, but you're definitely not leading them.

It is incredibly important as a leader or to be a leader, to consider their personal well-being, and that includes mental health, that includes oftentimes physical health, considering their happiness at work and what they're doing and what they feel like [is] their value-add, their home life. By doing these, you're just by nature going to see a drastic improvement in their performance, and not only in their performance, but their ability to lead within the organization as well. You're going to turn the people that you have into leaders because you empowered them. You made it possible for them to reach new heights.

So if you really want to have that exposure to the broader organization, you really need to consider these things that you've discussed with me, that you discussed with your other guest, because they're just really incredibly important to being that catalyst to change.

Amato: That is important. I like the difference between leading and managing. I think that's a great thing to end on. But Stefan, anything you'd like to say in closing?

Van Duyvendijk: I think there can be a lot of aspects of why burnout exists. People feel it in different ways, so I think it's always just to go back to perspective and mindfulness. It's really important to consider that just because people have kids, maybe they're not feeling burnt out, or they're more developed in their career or not.

There's all these different aspects of why they could or could not be feeling that burnout, so don't assume, make sure to ask, be engaged, and I think that you'll see not only growth within your organization, but I think you'll see personal growth in yourself, and I know it's hard, it's an iterative process. I struggle with this myself, but if you can do anything in the month of May for mental health awareness, please start engaging with your team.

Amato: Stefan, thanks very much.

Van Duyvendijk: It was a pleasure to be here. Thank you, Neil.

Amato: Again, that was Stefan van Duyvendijk from FloQast. We appreciate his insight on the topic of mental health and burnout. In the episode show notes, we will include several resources on mental health, including the first episode in May, my discussion with colleague Kari Hipsak, along with toolkits to help firms and organizations improve how they approach mental health.

In other news, we have coverage of a Government Accountability Office study on a decline in IRS audits of individual income tax returns over the years. In 2010, close to 1% of taxpayers were audited, and that number fell to 0.25% for the 2019 tax year. That decline was more pronounced among those with higher incomes. And, on Wednesday, that difference was one of several topics that legislators from a House Ways and Means subcommittee hearing wanted to hear more about from an IRS official and a GAO official.

Paul Bonner has coverage of the GAO study and the hearing, which we will link to in the show notes for this episode. We will talk again next week. Thanks for listening to the Journal of Accountancy podcast.