Minding the Other Pandemic
Amid the threat of COVID-19, CPAs could be facing another health crisis: a mental one.
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—and as of this
writing, possibly further. 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
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
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
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.