Don’t treat burnout as a badge of honor

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With the economy tiptoeing around a recession, COVID-19 lingering in the rearview mirror, and tax and accounting professionals grinding through a seemingly endless two-year tax season, it’s easy to feel discouraged and exhausted.

Burnout in the accounting profession was a problem well before the pandemic. Helping clients navigate all the pandemic relief programs and related regs—on top of the usual tax deadlines and obligations—only made it worse. I know many of you are rolling your eyes, saying “I’m a CPA. It is what it is. But I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to be that way.

Doug Brown J.D., author and chief learning officer at Summit Success International, told me on a recent podcast that burnout cuts through all ages, occupations, and genders. Brown said the problem is especially acute among CPAs, attorneys, physicians, and other professionals because Type A people tend to be perfectionists. They tell themselves, “I’ve got to do everything myself because no one else can get it done the right way.”

And so they flock to productivity books, seminars, and business coaches, looking for secret ways to get more done in less time. Unfortunately, that’s just a race to the bottom. The harder you grind, the less productive you become. As you start feeling further behind, the stress strains your relationships with colleagues, clients, friends, and family.

Sound familiar?

Another problem with Type A people, said Brown, is that they consider burnout a sign of weakness, rather than a clear signal that they need help. Instead, they should be looking for ways to leverage other people’s time to handle the little things that consume too much of their time and energy. And it also wouldn’t hurt to seek professional help from your doctor or mental health professional. More on that in a minute.

My story

As some of you know, I had a stroke seven years ago. As co-founder of our fast-growing firm, I was trying to be all things to all people: rainmaker, tax practitioner, practice manager, colleague, mentor, father, and husband. Looking back, I sensed that I was getting burned out before the stroke occurred, but that scary event was a clear wake-up call that I was on the path to an early demise if I didn’t make changes fast.

I stepped down as managing partner. It was hard at first, but I realized it was better for both the firm and myself if I focused less on day-to day-operations and more on educating the profession, meeting with CPAs all over the country, helping them learn more about the specialized services we provide, and how teaming up with us can help them build their practices. I realize everybody can’t just go out and redefine their role at work, but for me it worked great and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Stress and burnout are not the same

You can have good stress, such as when you’re preparing to speak before a large crowd, meet an important new client for the first time, or race toward an end-of-quarter deadline when you’re leading your team and firing on all cylinders. You’re in a flow state and there’s a tangible finish line in sight.

Then, there’s negative stress—dealing with demanding clients, or an abusive or unappreciative boss. In our profession, you want certainty and your clients want certainty, but we’re in a totally uncertain world, especially now. Again, that’s what causes stress to go off the charts because it occurs over an extended period without a break.

Dealing with burnout

If you sense that you, or even a close colleague, are burning out, don’t keep trying to grind through it. Have the courage to seek help. That’s not being weak; it’s being smart. Here are four ways to avoid burnout:

  1. Start taking better care of yourself. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, exercise regularly, and pay attention to your nutrition.
  2. Reset your priorities. What can you start saying “no” to? Learn the difference between urgent and important/but not urgent. Chances are that lots of things causing you stress could be put on a “get to it later” list.
  3. Block out focus time during the day, where you can feel safe focusing exclusively on a single must-do project, and let the rest of the world swirl around outside. Stop trying to multi-task. Research shows that very few people can truly multi-task, and every time you switch a task, you lose 20 minutes of productivity, on average.
  4. Play to your strengths. Be brutally honest with yourself about what you do best. What contributes the most value to the firm? Then, delegate the rest. Chances are that this approach will make you more focused and effective, and who wouldn’t want to spend most of their time on things they feel passionate about?

Get medical help if you need it

If you sense you’re on the verge of burnout, start with your general practitioner before seeking out mental health professionals. Your doctor can help you determine if there’s a chemical issue in your brain, or just an overall lifestyle issue. From there, they can make appropriate referrals. If you have questions about professional burnout or being more efficient with your time, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I’m happy to help.

 Key takeaways:

  • Burnout is not a sign of weakness—not dealing with burnout is a weakness.
  • Be brutally honest about what you do best—what contributes most value to the firm—and delegate the rest.
  • Learn the difference between urgent and important/not urgent.
Randy Crabtree, CPA

Randy Crabtree, CPA, co-founder and partner of Tri-Merit Specialty Tax Professionals, is a widely followed author, lecturer and host of “The Unique CPA” podcast. Follow Randy on Twitter @RCrabtreeCPA. More from Randy Crabtree, CPA

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