Amid the threat of COVID-19, CPAs could be facing another health crisis: a mental one.
By Bridget McCrea
By now, your traditional busy season should already be in your rearview mirror, having wound down shortly after April 15. In years past, you would have already pored over the numbers, double-checked the calculations, and filed the necessary tax forms on behalf of your company or clients. You would be ready to take a breather, schedule some time off from work, and plan that summer vacation you’ve been anticipating.
Not this year. The global coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench in this scenario, taking a heavy toll on human life and day-to-day activities, and extending the tax season to July 15. This likely left you, along with your fellow CPAs across the country, to balance several unforeseen challenges at once: managing the “new” busy season, helping clients/employers navigate unprecedented financial scenarios, ensuring everyone at home is safe, and maintaining personal emotional wellbeing.
Any one of these tasks is arguably monumental, but when they began compounding upon one another during the spring and early summer, it became easy to see how any CPA could be left feeling overwhelmed and depleted of both physical and mental resources.
“This is a really stressful, anxiety-provoking, and dehumanizing time for all of us, but particularly for those in professions that are tension-evoking and have time pressures associated with them,” says Jessica Lippman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist.
“Spring is a busy season to begin with for CPAs,” she explains. “Most of them are generally dealing with the mounting pressure of having too much work squeezed into too little time—not to mention looming tax deadlines.” The impact of this perfect storm of pressure can be downright overwhelming on a CPA’s psyche, Lippman says, and can take a toll on professionals’ mental health as they rush to meet deadlines, work long hours, eat on the run, and neglect their own needs.
In March, for example, Lippman found herself working with one CPA whose anxiety levels were so high that he was forced to take a leave of absence from work. “He was on overload,” she explains, “and questioning every action that he had taken and obsessing over what mistakes he had made or would make.”
To survive busy season—and now COVID-19—with their mental health intact, there are simple and pragmatic steps CPAs should take.
GET BACK TO BASICS
Managing busy season is stressful in a normal year, but it’s especially strenuous during a global pandemic. With COVID-19 continuing to stir up emotions like stress, anxiety, fear, sadness, and loneliness, the Mayo Clinic recommends getting enough sleep; participating in regular physical activity; eating healthy meals; avoiding tobacco, alcohol, and drugs; limiting screen time on computers and mobile devices; and taking time to relax and recharge as needed.
While these pointers may sound simplistic, a sound night’s sleep or a healthy meal instead of takeout can make a big difference for mental health.
Jay Scherer, president of Scherer Executive Advisors, says one of the best things CPAs can do to reduce their stress levels right now is to exercise regularly. With social distancing rules impacting health club attendance, he advises professionals to set up mini home gyms: invest in a treadmill, bike, or elliptical machine, plus a few dumbbells and a yoga mat, and use them on a regular basis.
“With the long hours that CPAs work, there’s a natural tendency to push their own health and wellbeing to the back burner,” Scherer says. “This can be detrimental because the best defense against anxiety and stress is a good diet, good food, good sleep, and working out.”
FOCUS ON A FRESH PERSPECTIVE
During difficult periods, Scherer says it’s important to stay focused on the light at the end of the tunnel. While this tunnel may seem particularly long and dark, maintaining a positive attitude as you progress through it is key to maintaining your mental health. Planning a fun activity for the future can help snap you out of a negative mindset. Someone who typically takes an extended break at the end of the busy season, for instance, can start the early planning stages of taking this break in the fall.
“CPAs like routine and enjoy having summers off, or at least some downtime during that period,” Scherer points out. “The fact that the tax deadline falls in July interrupts these plans, not to mention the fact that there will be extensions filed and more work to do even when the actual deadline passes.”
To manage this uncertainty, Jasmine Young, CPA, founder and CEO of Atlanta-based Southern Tax Preparation & Services, says she’s creating daily to-do lists, sticking to a schedule, and allotting ample time daily for self-care. “Setting a daily to-do list keeps me from being overwhelmed by the amount of work that has to be completed,” she says. “I also prioritize tasks on the to-do lists to ensure client deadlines and expectations are met.”
Young says she’s also setting working hours—and sticking to those hours—to prevent burnout. With more people working from home and feeling “always on,” setting these parameters is more important. “Staying within your working hours not only sets boundaries for clients and employers,” Young says, “but it also establishes boundaries for CPAs to ensure there is work-life balance.”
When it comes to self-care, Young says it can be as simple as setting aside time to take a walk outside for some fresh air, meditating, having lunch away from your desk, or simply doing nothing at all. “This supports good work-life balance and allows CPAs time to wind down from the stress of the work required during this busy season,” she says.
CUT YOURSELF—AND YOUR TEAM—SOME SLACK
Knowing that their team members are dealing with more than the usual number of personal challenges right now, managers and owners can also play a role in supporting mental health. Scherer says opening lines of communication is a good first step, followed by questions like: What challenges are you working through? How can I be helpful to you? What do you need from us?
“If a leader is oblivious to the individual needs of his or her team, those issues will be exposed pretty quickly when things rev back up,” Scherer says. He also cautions managers and owners to not push their teams too hard to make up for lost revenues due to COVID-19: “You’re not going to make it all up this year, so don’t even try—especially if you’re billing hourly. Cut yourself some slack and acknowledge that it’s just not going to be a great year; otherwise, you’re going to put too much pressure on your people.”
Pointing out the fallacy that partners don’t get ulcers—they give them—Lippman says now is also a good time to define the role and the scope of each CPA’s position. “Firms hire very competitive personalities in a profession where quantitative overload and time pressures are the greatest stressors,” she says. “This, in turn, leads to job tension and psychosomatic stress, the latter of which is both real and genuinely felt.”
Along with the tips already mentioned, Lippman says limiting exposure to news media and regularly connecting with others via phone, email, video chat, social media, and even snail mail can all help CPAs maintain their emotional health during a crisis.
To managers, Lippman says simply acknowledging that team members are working very hard despite what’s going on in the world around them can go a long way in helping them feel appreciated and respected. “Providing this level of support is incredibly important at all times,” Lippman says, “but it’s more critical now than ever.”
While these suggestions are relatively minor, small changes can make a big difference to mental resilience—to the end of the busy season and beyond.
Published with permission from the Illinois CPA Society.