Help your staff make it through busy season

Hosted by Courtney Vien

Busy season is often the most stressful time of the year for CPAs in public accounting. Eustis Corrigan, CPA, senior managing director at CBIZ MHM in Memphis, Tenn., a veteran of more than 30 tax seasons, shares what his firm does to support staff during busy season.

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • Fun ways to keep employees’ spirits up during busy season.
  • Ways managers can support staff during busy season.
  • How managers can help staff members who are struggling.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this podcast or to suggest an idea for another podcast, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at

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Courtney Vien: Hello. I’m Courtney Vien, a senior editor with the Journal of Accountancy, and this is the Journal of Accountancy podcast. So we are now in the time of the year that CPAs know as busy season. This can be a very stressful time for accountants and their morale can suffer, but there are ways that you can keep your staff’s spirits high. Eustis Corrigan is here to tell us about some of them. Eustis is a CPA, and he is the senior managing director at CBIZ MHM in Memphis, Tennessee, and he’s got decades of tax experience, so he’s seen many a busy season, and he’s well equipped to tell us about it.

But first, please listen to this message from our sponsor.

Hello, Eustis, we’re glad to have you.

Eustis Corrigan: Thank you, Courtney. I’m very glad to be here.

Vien: So what in your view is the most difficult aspect of the busy season for CPAs?

Corrigan: You know, I think to answer that question, there’s no one-size-fits-all in terms of responding. It really depends on the person’s lifestyle, their attributes, if they have a family, are they single, et cetera. The common denominator with everybody, and in my experience, and being around all these busy seasons, is it’s the long hours.

If you’re not careful, working long hours, if you don’t take care of yourself, can affect the way you think, the way you act, decisioning, et cetera, if you work beyond a certain limit during the day. So, everybody talks about long hours, or that the pressure — certainly time away from friends and family is a difficult aspect of it — but just crunching through it, in the hours, seems to be a common denominator in terms of what’s very difficult for people to deal with.

Vien: What are some things you do at your firm to keep employees’ spirits up during the busy season?

Corrigan: Gosh, we do a lot, it seems, and we have a really good team of folks on the admin and human resources side of things that really come up with neat programs and initiatives, and it’s not even just in the office where I am in Memphis, Tennessee. In other offices throughout CBIZ MHM, there’s food, you know. Food, whether it be lunches during the day, meals at night, so nobody has to leave. It creates a sense of camaraderie as well because people are breaking bread together, and I think that creates a good sense of community. During Mardi Gras season, for instance, because we’re kind of close to South Louisiana, being in Memphis — we have some connections — we bring in Mardi Gras cakes during Mardi Gras season. People look forward to that kind of thing. We have different programs around. We might have a masseuse come up for neck and shoulder massages. Just this past busy season we had an organization bring up dogs for petting, and they came into our training room, to give everybody a break. During the sporting events, the Super Bowl, for March Madness, people will have brackets going around. So anything like that that keeps people a little bit balanced, that it’s not all about work, that it’s about them, about us, about our community, it’s about our engagement with each other as well. So anything we do typically we try in a group setting from that standpoint. The other things that we do is random drawings during the week. We have gift cards and do trivia contests. So there’s a plethora of things these days that you find out there with different offices, different firms.

Vien: Would you say that busy season has changed at all over the years, in terms of the work levels or the stress levels?

Corrigan: The work environment I think was different. I saw a change occur starting, I’d say, in the mid- to late ’90s, where firms in the offices I was in started providing meals, started ordering out, started doing group meals. So it was a migration from that era into the late ’90s, 2000s, where firms started doing more special things during tax season.

You would find the Baby Boomer generation and older were very much accustomed to a certain work ethic and style and perhaps not as focused on some of the extracurricular or fringe benefits, if you will, around tax season.

And then Generation X want to, need to have something, some activities going on during tax season that are fun, that are interactive, and that keep people together and networked in order to be happy where they are and engaged.

So, I think what you’ve seen in the accounting profession is a movement on that spectrum to now we’re talking about being a little more engaged with our employees.

I think the people — from the people standpoint, as it’s been demonstrated, there’s a bubble moving through our profession now where we have less and less people perhaps coming into accounting and staying in public accounting. We’re trying to retain them and give them something to have fun with in addition to growing professionally.

Vien: What are some ways managers can support their staff during busy season?

Corrigan: Well, I think constant communication. So, one thing, I think, one good best practice is for a manager to start the day with a small huddle-type meeting, to kick off the day and find out if anybody on their team is stuck.

Other things I’ve seen is our marketing team in Memphis came up with a good idea last busy season where we had an appreciation wall. We had a wall where people could go up and put a yellow sticky thanking somebody or calling out somebody, a little shout-out for people, staff, typically, and others, seniors and so forth, just giving comments and encouraging. So, I think a common theme with this is for managers to be very encouraging and supportive of their staff, and treat it as a learning experience, not just a robotic experience, where they’re just inputting numbers into forms. But I think people want to learn. So, there’s an educational aspect to this as well. So being encouraging, but also finding teaching moments with their staff, are good ways to really support and mentor and coach staff.

Vien: What can a manager do if they sense a staff member is really struggling?

Corrigan: This is a really critical question and I really appreciate the question because, first of all, it’s very fortuitous if the manager or somebody senses an employee’s struggling. What I would suggest is definitely meet with that person to understand the struggle. Is it time management, project management? Is it other personalities or people? Is it something about a particular thing that they’re doing? Maybe they’re working on individual returns, but they’re wired to work on business tax returns. That could be a reason somebody’s struggling.

But most likely a struggle with an employee during tax season is because they’re overwhelmed, and if that’s the case, then beyond meeting with that staff person, the manager can help them prioritize their work, help them with time management and project management skills, and just coach and develop them from there. Typically, sometimes, and it depends on the firm, we have career advisers assigned to our staff.

Sometimes it’s good to get out of the office. So, if you sense that with somebody, take them down to the coffee shop for a cup of coffee, and get out of the office for a little bit and invest the time, because you will get a return on investment of that time if you invest it, but you need to invest the time with them.

I’ll say this, with respect to tax season or busy season, it’s a very unique time period, and it takes some years to get into a groove and manage your life and everything that goes around your life during it. So it’s definitely not uncommon to find people struggling through it and give them words of encouragement and advice.

Vien: What are some things that CPAs can do to motivate themselves during busy season?

Corrigan: I start with taking care of themselves. That’s tough because of the long hours, but I’d say start with yourself. Exercise, eating right, getting plenty of sleep — those factor into good health and awareness and just, I think, motivation during tax season, during busy season.

Secondly, what motivates people is that they’re getting things done.

If they see they’re getting things done, that should motivate somebody to keep the momentum going. Everybody has their own system of tracking their projects and tax returns and whatnot, but use an Excel spreadsheet or whatever application you might be using, and track your projects to the stage of completion, and definitely show the ones that are completed.

Vien: That was Eustis Corrigan, CPA, senior managing director at CBIZ in Memphis, Tennessee. This has been the Journal of Accountancy podcast. Thank you for listening.