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15 Ways to Deal With Tax Season Stress

You know it’s coming. You might even be dreading it. So let these expert tips help relieve some of the stress. By Sheryl Nance-Nash | Digital Exclusive

Tax Time

Tax season can be grueling. Year after year, burnout looms its ominous head as tax pros slave over tax return after tax return. You know when it’s going to happen, and there’s a certain sameness to the scenarios – clients wait until the last minute to get their paperwork in, there doesn’t seem to be enough staff, and it feels like you’re working 24/7. Not the best scenario when you need to be on your A-game.

With that in mind, read on for 15 tips that will help flip the script this time around.    

1. Prioritize

“If you know you get about 1,000 tax returns per season, break that up so you have a plan of attack and a short-term goal that’s manageable. Designate X number of tax returns per day or per week to make sure you’re staying on target,” says John Sadofsky, director of Permanent Placement Services for Robert Half Finance & Accounting in Chicago.

2. Assess staffing needs

Think about last tax season and evaluate the staff you’ll need for the same this time around. Consider how your team’s and clients’ needs may have changed since last year, and whether business has increased or priorities have changed, says Sadofsky. Then staff accordingly.

3. Be proactive, not reactive

Give yourself a large window of time in which to obtain documents from clients, so you’re not stressed or left without something you need when it’s time to work on a tax return. “Select a date for clients getting their income tax data to you that is early enough to avoid those last 15 days of April being torturous in terms of hours worked and pressure. Perhaps April 1 is a good deadline,” says Marc Rosenberg, CPA with The Rosenberg Associates in Wilmette, Ill.

What’s more, keep track of client deliverables, and don’t wait for deadlines to hit before you send reminders.

4. Establish order

Take charge of your business and the process by giving clients a firm set of rules—for organizing data and filing deadlines in particular. And make sure you hold them accountable. “If you start to waver on the rules you’ve set, you could run the risk of clients wasting valuable amounts of your time. Most clients will follow and appreciate your rules as long you’re following them and you make very clear how they should be following them as well,” says Roger Harris, president and COO of Padgett Business Services.

5. Manage expectations

“Tell clients up front when they can expect their returns. Align expectations, so there are no surprises,” says Steven V. Melnik, LLM (Tax), J.D., CPA, associate professor of tax law and the academic director in graduate and undergraduate tax areas at Baruch College in Manhattan.

6. Clear your desk

Clean house by the end of February. You want to get rid of as much of your other work before March hits. Do whatever you have to in order to be all caught up and ready to go when the peak of tax season hits. You know you’re going to be putting in crazy hours, so do a little extra ahead of time to make life a little easier.

7. Bundle tax responsibilities

If you’re a tax generalist, don’t switch gears multiple times throughout your day. For example, perform 1040 (individual) tax returns in the morning, then switch to 1065 (partnership) returns in the afternoon. This way, you can keep the momentum going. The same goes for follow-up calls or other tasks – bundle them into a time slot.

8. Anticipate complex issues

Similarly, identify clients that might have more complicated tax returns and make sure you have someone on staff who has the specialized skills needed for those assignments. Take advantage of the time you have left this year to address any issues you think may come up. “It’s easier to resolve current concerns while you have time now, so when your busy season arrives, you won’t be carrying that burden with you,” says Harris. “One such example is the Affordable Care Act. You most likely will face many questions from clients on this topic. Prepare accordingly for when they come.”

In other words, have a system in place to tackle issues when they arise – and they will.

9. Stay focused

Create an environment with as few distractions as possible. “For me it’s dimming the lights, opening windows for natural light and listening to music (usually very loud with my headphones on). Don’t allow distractions. Only check email and voicemail at certain intervals, turn off sound and visual notifications,” says Cari Weston, director of tax practice and ethics for the AICPA in Washington, D.C.

10. Learn to say no

Time is a commodity that’s hard to come by. “If you start the season saying yes to anything, people will push you to the limit,” says Harris. “Be willing to say no to new clients, new business, and especially things you are not comfortable doing. Don’t stretch yourself so thin that you aren’t allowing yourself an exit.”

11. Set reasonable, achievable, daily goals

By doing so, you’ll chip away at your overall workload at a steady pace. As you work through your daily priorities, you’ll see your total tax season goals being accomplished as well.

12. Take care of yourself

It’s easy to work 24/7—but it may take its toll physically, professionally and emotionally. “Exercise, eat healthy and get enough sleep. It’s also a good idea to take breaks during the day – step out for lunch or even just for 15 minutes to get fresh air,” says Sadofsky.

13. Recognize your team’s hard work

Everybody in the organization is giving 100 percent and then some. Show some love, especially if you’re in a managerial role. Even small gestures, such as gift cards, donuts, lunch, or a casual day can go a long way to making people feel their work is valued and the long hours don’t go unnoticed.

14. Be flexible

Minimize mandatory times that staff need to be in the office. “If their target is to work 55 hours a week, let them decide when they work. No mandatory Saturdays. Flexibility is one of the keys to making the oppressive work hours in the tax season tolerable,” says Rosenberg. “Everyone in the firm, including partners, should be required to take at least one long weekend off during the tax season. Friday to Monday.”

15. Plan a vacation for the end of tax season

Says Sadofsky, “It’s always a good idea to have something to look forward to after a long, busy tax season.” Knowing that a week on the beach, soaking up the sun and sipping on a cocktail, is in your not-too-distant future makes everything a lot more bearable in the present.