Professionals’ workload seems to get more grueling each year with endless deadlines, changing laws, additional pressures in a COVID environment, and less staff to do the work. CPAs hunker down and tend to put work above all else. As a result, mental health, self-care, and relationships with loved ones are being sacrificed. One of the biggest factors that may be standing in the way of CPAs doing their job without burning themselves out is stress. The good news is that there are methods that business owners and staff can use to move beyond the stress that may be depleting their vitality.

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What Increases Stress that May Not Be Obvious

Although the human brain is a magnificent organ, it also requires a lot of energy. Understanding how the mind is wired will help one actively manage it and stay focused on what is most important. Much can be said about the power of the brain; scientists continue to make new discoveries. For purposes of managing stress, it helps to be aware of a few facts.

First, the brain is wired with deep-seated thoughts and beliefs based on what you have learned in childhood, life experiences, your environment, expectations of society and others, and even through the DNA of your ancestors. Humans tend to have perceptions of situations, relationships, and circumstances that is so instilled in them that they believe things are true, even when they may not be. The brain often creates narratives to make sense of things.

Second, the mind is wired to tune in and give extra attention to the negative. This is even more prevalent in uncertain times when there is an increased potential for stress. If you are aware of your thoughts, you can catch the negativity bias. For example, you may have three clients who express their appreciation for your work, and one who complains. Your mind is likely to focus more on the one who complains, which may even keep you up at night. The truth may be that most clients love the service provided and that the complainer was simply having a bad day. It makes sense that our brains are wired this way when you consider that the ancestors of modern humans had to constantly be on the lookout for real danger, including animal attacks. Those who worried the most about all the possible things that could go wrong were more likely to defend themselves and survive. Today, we don’t have the dangers that our ancestors faced and yet our brain continues to be on the lookout for worst-case scenarios.

Third, there is healthy and unhealthy stress. Healthy stress can be motivating; it can feel like butterflies in the stomach and get the adrenaline going. Unhealthy stress can cause weight gain, fatigue, and increased risks of getting sick. The doubts, worries, and concerns that take up a lot of energy can lead to the release of cortisol in the body that wreaks havoc to your health. Your cognitive assessment of how well you can handle stress can impact the toll it can take on your well-being.

Fourth, the brain gathers evidence to support where its attention is focused. For example, focusing on the one client who complained may lead you to find “proof” that other clients may be unhappy. This keeps you in the cycle of expending much time and energy on these worries; often, this happens unconsciously and impacts behavior. The good news is that you can choose where you focus your attention.

You Can Choose Where You Focus Your Attention

When you are aware of how your mind operates, you can choose to focus your attention in a more purposeful way that improves your overall satisfaction and well-being. This is not toxic positivity, ignoring negative emotions and feelings. It is about being intentional to create what is most important to you. There is a lot in life that cannot be controlled; your point of power is to see clearly what is within your control and what is most meaningful to you, so that you spend your energy in the most effective way.

Consider that the mind operates in a loop. What you focus on leads to your behavior, and this leads to your results. You can often see your behavior and results more clearly than your thoughts and beliefs that are driving your actions. There is a simple tool that can provide more clarity on the cycle that is happening. The following examples bring this to life.

Example.

Andy checks his e-mail constantly. He gets into his bed with his phone at night and checks his messages as the last thing he does before he goes to sleep. He starts his day by rolling over to grab his phone to see what he has missed while he’s been sleeping. His result is that he’s exhausted, not present for his loved ones, not taking care of his health, and in the constant mode of responding to the needs of others. When he looks a little closer, Andy can see that he believes his clients expect him to respond to their messages immediately. He believes that not responding within a very short period would put the client relationships at risk and that they may go elsewhere for their services. The cycle looks like this: I must respond to clients immediately or they will fire me–>I respond to e-mails 24/7–>I’m exhausted and have no energy for anything else–>loops back to the beginning.

When Andy takes the time to dig more deeply, he can see that in reality, he provides a great service to his clients and it’s the trust and relationship they have with him that they value most. When he focuses on this, he takes better care of himself so that he can provide the best support for his clients. The result is that he is rested and has plenty of energy in his life left for his relationships, his health, and his other interests. The cycle now looks like this: I provide a valuable service for my clients–>I take good care of myself so that I can provide good service–>I’m well rested and have energy for my relationships, health, and work–>loops back to the beginning.

One of the biggest factors that may be standing in the way of CPAs doing their job without burning themselves out is stress.

Example.

Anita is worried about what the great redefinition for work means for her business. She is concerned that her staff will be looking elsewhere and that her clients won’t be served well if there aren’t enough people to do the work. She shows up tense when she is communicating with her colleagues, and as a result they feel stressed and the work environment is not enjoyable. The feedback loop looks like this: I am worried the staff are going to leave–> I am tense with everyone–>Everyone I interact with at work feels stressed–> loops back to the beginning.

Anita is tired of the toll this is taking on her and those around her. After some reflection, she realizes how much she values her staff and that she loves being a mentor for them and seeing them grow. She can see that the way she has been showing up is perpetuating her worst fears about these terrific staff leaving. Once she is clear on the truth of the matter, she takes more time to meet with her staff, understand their needs and desires, and to be the mentor that she wants to be. The result is that her staff feel appreciated and valued. The feedback loop now looks like this: I love mentoring my staff and seeing them grow–> I take time to know my staff–> My staff feel valued and appreciated–> loops back to the beginning.

The lesson to draw from these examples is this: Notice your behaviors and the results. If you see something is off, dig deeper to see which thoughts and beliefs are driving your actions so that you can choose to focus on something more important to you.

Seven Ways to Boost Energy

After laying the groundwork for how the mind operates, the next step is to consider strategies that can reduce stress and boost energy.

Create a vision for how you want your day to be.

We often go about our days on autopilot mindlessly responding to whatever grabs our attention. Before you know it, your day is gone and you are not sure what has been accomplished. This may mean working longer, so that you can get high-priority projects done. If you can map out your day to focus on what matters to you most, you will have a better chance of making that happen. What is a good morning and evening routine that will set you up to have the best day? It may be that you focus on exercise and health first thing in the morning, complete your priority work for the few first hours of the day, and save client and internal meetings for the afternoon. You might want to take movement breaks to keep up your energy throughout the day. You may have a cut-off time for work so that you can focus on your loved ones or other interests for the evening and get to bed in time for good sleep.

Determine what is within your control to make your vision a reality.

Set yourself up for success. You may need to set boundaries on your time. You might turn off e-mail notifications so that you respond only in between your projects and meetings. Have you expressed your needs and desires to those closest to you so that they can support you making better use of your time and energy? Take note of which clients are taking the most energy. and consider whether it would be best to refer them elsewhere. Is it worth you sacrificing your health and well-being to continue to serve them?

Use the PERMA approach to check in on your well-being.

The psychologist, educator, and author Dr. Martin Seligman has focused on studying what is worthwhile and positive in life. His goal has been to take people from merely surviving to thriving. His PERMA model can be used to rate oneself on a scale from 1 to 10 to determine if any areas need attention.

  • Positive emotion is about doing things that bring you joy, whether it’s time with loved ones, listening to music, playing with your dog, dancing, or whatever else.
  • Engagement is about focusing your effort on something you are passionate about. It might be the work you enjoy most, volunteering, or creating something meaningful to you.
  • Relationships and connections are likely most important of all to our well-being. You want to make sure that relationships aren’t being sacrificed consistently for other things calling for your attention.
  • Meaning is something bigger than you that gives your life purpose. It may be your spirituality or a cause important to you.
  • Achievement is the progress you are making toward your goals and is why it is so important to reflect on your accomplishments each day. It helps if your goals are in alignment with your values and vision.

Recognize when you need a break.

We often push ourselves to keep going to get all of our to-dos done. It’s important to notice when you have gone too far and need a break. If you are tired, it may be best to go for a walk or call it a day and start fresh tomorrow. If you are anxious, it may be a good idea to get up and do some stretching or meditation. If you are hungry, maybe you need to stop and get something to eat before you tackle your next task. Being in tune with yourself and your needs can go a long way towards protecting your well-being and result in being more energized and clearer headed for the work that needs to get done. The benefit is that you will get it done more quickly and with higher quality when you take care of your needs first.

Have compassion for yourself.

We live in a fast-paced world with many people and situations calling for our attention. You are doing important work for your clients and juggling all of this in the midst of uncertain and changing times. It can be powerful to accept things as they are and to remember you are doing the best you can. Be kind to yourself.

Remember what you are grateful for.

Take time each day to reflect on what you are grateful for in your life. This is a way to shift the focus of your attention and end the day on a positive note. What happened during the day that went well? Are you and your loved ones in good health? What are you grateful for about your work? It’s amazing to see the energy lift when getting in touch with all you have to be thankful for.

Breathe.

It seems simple, but the intentional act of breathing can transform your day. Often, our bodies are rigid when we are stressed. Taking time to stop and breathe can bring calm to your mind and your body. Take four deep breaths in, hold for four breaths, and slowly exhale out. Repeat this a few times until you feel calm. There are many apps (including free versions, like Insight Timer) that offer guided meditations.

What’s the Next Step?

People often read articles or attend courses and then get back to their busy work schedules without putting any of those insights into action. There are small steps one can take immediately to start moving in the right direction. Ask yourself which of the following work for you:

  • Blocking off your calendar so that you can get your priorities done first?
  • Putting your workout clothes out at night to be ready first thing in the morning?
  • Setting clear boundaries between your work and personal time?
  • Asking for support in shifting your schedule?
  • Reflecting at the end of the day to note what you acknowledge yourself for and what you’re grateful for?
  • Creating an evening and morning routine?
  • Clarifying your values and what is most important to you, and aligning your day to support this?
  • Something else?

As author James Clear wrote in Atomic Habits, “You rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. Your goal is your desired outcome. Your system is your collection of your daily habits that will get you there.”

Sidney Kess, JD, LLM, CPA, is of counsel to Kostelanetz LLP. He is a member of the NYSSCPA Hall of Fame and was awarded the Society’s Outstanding CPA in Education Award in May 2015. He is also a member of The CPA Journal Editorial Advisory Board.
Andrea Millar, CPA/PFS, RLP, CFLA, is the founder of Andrea Millar Life Planning, andreamillarlifeplanning.com.